If you tried to start a auto that's been sitting in a garage for decades, you might not expect the engine to respond.
Humanity's most distant spacecraft surprised its operators by answering the call to fire up rockets that have not been used in nearly 40 years.
Voyager 1, NASA's farthest and fastest spacecraft, is the only human-made object in interstellar space, the environment between the stars.
The spacecraft had been relying on its primary thrusters to keep it oriented, but these have degraded over time. These thrusters fire in small pulses, lasting mere milliseconds, to subtly rotate the spacecraft so that its antenna points at our planet.
Suzanne Dodd, Voyager's project manager at JPL, said that the ability to use those thrusters will extend the spacecraft's life "by two to three years".
The JPL's engineers began to look into alternatives, and found a new way to steer the spacecraft: the probe's trajectory correction maneuver (TCM) thrusters.
On top of the the backups sitting idle for so long, while being 13 billion miles from Earth, there was a third problem: the backups weren't used for "attitude control". The Voyager team assembled a group of propulsion experts at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, for the job.
"The Voyager flight team dug up decades-old data and examined the software that was coded in an outdated assembler language, to make sure we could safely test the thrusters".
The Voyager missions discovered the first active volcanoes beyond Earth, at Jupiter's moon Io, and hints of a subsurface ocean on Jupiter's moon Europa. They are located on the back side of the spacecraft in this orientation. The last time they were needed was when Voyager 1 passed Saturn on November 8, 1980.
Aerojet Rocketdyne developed all of the Voyager's thrusters. The same kind of thruster, called the MR-103, flew on other NASA spacecraft as well, such as Cassini and Dawn.
After 37 years of disuse, a set of thrusters aboard Voyager 1 activated on Wednesday, firing up humanity's farthest-flung spacecraft and hopefully giving it a longer life than it had before. However, almost 20 hours after firing up the backup thrusters, engineers received a signal from the Voyager back on Earth, which meant their test was successful.
The team will switch over to the TCM thrusters in January, but there is a drawback: they require heaters to operate, which will draw on the probe's limited power.
Turns out the thrusters worked just fine. With this example before them, NASA laid a more ambitious message aboard Voyager 1 and 2, a kind of time capsule, meant to relate a story of our world to aliens.
Voyager 2 lags behind, but according to NASA, the spacecraft is following the lead of the first Voyager and is on course to enter interstellar space in the coming years.
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