Key Takeaways

  • Scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) successfully fired up the trajectory correction maneuver (TCM) thrusters on Voyager 1, a spacecraft that is currently the farthest from Earth.
  • These thrusters, which hadn’t been used since 1980, were activated in an effort to extend the spacecraft’s lifetime beyond 2020.
  • Voyager 1’s attitude control thrusters, used to point its antenna towards Earth, had been wearing down, posing a challenge for communication.
  • The successful test of the TCM thrusters means the spacecraft can continue to send back data from beyond the Solar System for an additional two to three years.
  • The team plans to test the TCM thrusters on Voyager 2 as well, which is expected to exit the Solar System in the near future.

NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft, currently the farthest man-made object from Earth, has once again captured the attention of scientists. The spacecraft, which hadn’t used some of its thrusters since 1980, received a response after scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) successfully fired them up.

Voyager 1, the only spacecraft ever sent to interstellar space, relies on attitude control thrusters to point its antenna towards Earth for communication. Over time, these thrusters had been wearing down, posing a significant challenge for maintaining contact with the spacecraft.

In an attempt to extend Voyager 1’s lifespan, JPL scientists discovered that another set of thrusters on the spacecraft, called the trajectory correction maneuver (TCM) thrusters, could be utilized for this purpose. The activation of these thrusters could potentially prolong the spacecraft’s mission beyond 2020.

Suzanne Dodd, project manager for Voyager at JPL, expressed optimism, stating, “With these thrusters that are still functional after 37 years without use, we will be able to extend the life of the Voyager 1 spacecraft by two to three years.”

The TCM thrusters were initially employed by Voyager 1 to navigate past Jupiter and Saturn as it embarked on its journey out of the Solar System. Since November 8, 1980, these thrusters had remained dormant. However, on November 28, the team decided to initiate a test to determine if they were still operational.

After a nerve-wracking 19-hour and 35-minute wait for the test results to reach Earth due to Voyager 1’s immense distance (21 billion kilometers or 13 billion miles), the team received confirmation on November 29 that the thrusters had indeed worked.

Todd Barber, a member of the JPL team, shared the excitement they felt during the test, saying, “The Voyager team got more excited each time with each milestone in the thruster test. The mood was one of relief, joy, and incredulity after witnessing these well-rested thrusters pick up the baton as if no time had passed at all.”

The TCM thrusters are comparable in size and functionality to the spacecraft’s other thrusters. However, the power requirement for using them is higher, as each thruster requires a heater to be turned on. Once there is insufficient power for the heaters, the spacecraft will switch back to the original thrusters.

The successful test brings good news for enthusiasts of Voyager 1, as it ensures that the spacecraft will continue to transmit captivating data from beyond the Solar System for a little while longer. Furthermore, the team intends to conduct similar tests on Voyager 2, its twin spacecraft, which is expected to exit the Solar System in the coming years.

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