Saturday, 16 December, 2017

NASA fires up Voyager 1 backup thrusters after 37 years

After 37 years, Voyager 1 has fired up its trajectory thrusters Voyager 1 Fires Dormant Thrusters for the First Time in 37 Years
Frank Williams | 03 December, 2017, 01:29

If you had a vehicle sitting in a garage for almost forty years you'd forgive it for not starting with the first turn of the key. On Tuesday, JPL engineers commanded the thrusters to fire and waited for Voyager's response.

The US space firm NASA has said a set of thrusters aboard the Voyager 1 probe, the unique human-made object in interstellar space, have been successfully fired up after 37 years without practice. The probe, which has been flying for 40 years, depends on small tools called thrusters to orient itself so it can interact with Earth.

Now that the four thrusters have proved to be operable, the Voyager 1 will have a longer mission. Over time, the thrusters need more puffs to give off the equivalent quantity of power.

As humanity's first visitor to interstellar space, NASA's Voyager 1 has revealed itself to be a trooper, answering commands that take nearly 20 hours to arrive, and performing routine tasks and transmitting data back (another 20-hour one-way call) to the home planet.

In anticipation of that moment, perhaps, a group of engineers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory have been kicking the tires on Voyager 1. They settled on what the space agency refers to as an "unusual solution:" to wake up the backup thrusters.

"The Voyager flight team dug up decades-old data and examined the software that was coded in an outdated assembler language, to make sure we could safely test the thrusters", Jet Propulsion Laboratory chief engineer Chris Jones wrote.

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Instead of continuing to use the attitude control thrusters, they wanted to try to turn on the spacecraft's trajectory correction maneuver thrusters, which hadn't been used for almost 40 years. The last time these thrusters were active was in November 1980, when the probe zipped by Saturn. Back then, the TCM thrusters were used in a more continuous firing mode; they had never been used in the brief bursts necessary to orient the spacecraft. It did. After almost four decades of dormancy, the Aerojet Rocketdyne manufactured thrusters fired perfectly. The same kind of thruster, called the MR-103, flew on other NASA spacecraft as well, such as Cassini and Dawn. 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.

Lo and behold, on Wednesday, Nov. 29, they learned the TCM thrusters worked perfectly - and just as well as the attitude control thrusters.

This week, the scientists and engineers on the Voyager team did something very special.

Nasa plans to switch over to the formerly dormant thrusters in January.

The test went so well that not only will Voyager 1 be switching over to the backup thrusters until there's no longer enough power to keep them warm, but they're looking into to doing the same thing for its twin, Voyager 2 - after proper testing, of course.

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