NASA Activates Voyager's Dormant Thrusters 37 Years Later

Today's society might be caught up in next year's model when it comes to cars or gadgets, but science fans can stand to appreciate the engineering that went into the Voyager 1 spacecraft. NASA has successfully fired thrusters aboard the craft on Wednesday, Nov. 29, even after decades of disuse.

Voyager 1 has been hurtling on its way out of the Solar System for the better part of 40 years now, and it's never been more important to keep its antenna pointed to Earth to keep it in touch with NASA engineers.

NASA/JPL-CaltechThe Voyager team is able to use a set of four backup thrusters, dormant since 1980. They are located on the back side of the spacecraft in this orientation.

This is done by a series of puffs from thrusters aboard the craft — small puffs that fire only mere milliseconds, and are more than enough to orient Voyager 1 towards our planet, as NASA explained in their news update last Friday, Dec. 1.

NASA engineers have to resort to a set of thrusters called "trajectory correction maneuver" (TCM) since the ones that they have been using have degraded past beyond an acceptable point. The "attitude control thrusters" have been in decline since 2014, and are now wasting more propellant than ever.

The discovery that the TCM thrusters still work has been the cause for celebration for the Voyager project team.

"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," Suzanne Dodd, project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, explained.

It was not an easy test, either. At 13 billion miles from earth, the response from Voyager 1 takes 19 hours and 35 minutes to reach the Voyager team, even when the signal travels at the speed of light.

It has been an anxious wait for the response from the spacecraft. "The Voyager team got more excited each time with each milestone in the thruster test," Todd Barber, a propulsion expert in the team, noted.

"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," he added, as quoted by Engadget.