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NASA wakes up Voyager's slumbering thrusters 37 years later

NASA wakes up Voyager's slumbering thrusters 37 years later

Sure, each of the four the thrusters would need to be heated individually, which would consume even more energy than they normally would.

For the first time in 37 years and billions of miles traveled, NASA successfully fired up a set of thrusters on the Voyager 1 spacecraft.

Nasa has nailed an engine test on a spacecraft 20 billion kilometres away. The result took 19 hours and 35 minutes to reach Earth. This job usually falls to the attitude control thrusters, but after 40 years in space those are beginning to weaken.

This is why, when you're sending something into space where you can never retrieve it for repairs, it's a good idea to include failsafes - in this case, Voyager 1 has additional thrusters that were used for trajectory correction manoeuvres (TCM).

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Now travelling far outside our solar system, and with its primary thrusters on their last legs, NASA made a decision to conduct a test on its long-rested back-up system. It orients itself by firing several 10-millisecond puffs with its thrusters - problem is, the ones it regularly uses haven't been performing as well after four decades in space. The MR-103 thrusters, delivered by Aerojet Rocketdyne, are meant to fire in pulses to spin the spacecraft and retain its 12-foot (3.7-meter) antenna directed towards Earth, but engineers have observed plenty of firings were required recently designating the jets were ceding some of their interpretation. But because Voyager 1's last planetary encounter was Saturn, the Voyager team hadn't needed to use the TCM thrusters since November 8, 1980. They are located on the back side of the spacecraft in this orientation.

Lo and behold, on Wednesday, Nov. 29, they learned the TCM thrusters worked perfectly - and just as well as the attitude control thrusters. The attitude control thrusters now used for Voyager 2 are not yet as degraded as Voyager 1's, however. Todd Barber, one of the propulsion experts who looked at the issue closely, said that "The Voyager team got more excited each time with each milestone in the thruster test".

The thruster test went so well, the team will likely do a similar test on the TCM thrusters for Voyager 2, the twin spacecraft of Voyager 1.