NASA uses 'Plan B' to reorient Voyager 1 in interstellar space

Enlarge Image This artist's depiction imagines what Voyager 1 looked like when crossing into interstellar space.                  NASA  JPL-Caltech

Enlarge Image This artist's depiction imagines what Voyager 1 looked like when crossing into interstellar space. NASA JPL-Caltech

In a blog post, the agency explained that Voyager 1's main attitude control thrusters had been degrading, making it hard to reorient the spacecraft so that its antenna points back towards Earth.

They wanted to reposition Voyager 1, which, at 21 billion kilometres away is the space agency's most far-flung spaceship.

After sending the commands on Tuesday, it took 19 hours and 35 minutes for the signal to reach Voyager.

Voyager 1 and 2 - both launched in 1977 - have been exploring farther-flung planets in our solar system.

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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". We've learned about Jupiter's moons, Saturn's rings, Neptune's winds - all thanks to Voyager 1. "The Voyager team got more excited each time with each milestone in the thruster test", said Todd Barber of JPL. These backup thrusters will give Voyager an extra year or two of life, before it loses connection with its home planet and disappears into the abyss of space.

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.

After reviewing decades-old data and software "that was coded in an outdated assembler language", JPL engineers, led by JPL Chief Engineer Chris Jones, determined it was safe to attempt to fire them. To accurately fly by and point the spacecraft's instruments at a smorgasbord of targets, engineers used "trajectory correction maneuver", or TCM, thrusters that are identical in size and functionality to the attitude control thrusters, and are located on the back side of the spacecraft.

Aerojet Rocketdyne developed all of the Voyager's thrusters. The mission celebrated its 40th anniversary this year, but it's not just a lump of metal floating through interstellar space: that baby still runs. "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".

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The engineers plan to use a similar test on Voyager 2, which was launched earlier than its twin, but is still within the realm of our solar system.

The spacecraft had been relying on its primary thrusters to keep it oriented, but these have degraded over time. When there is no longer enough power to operate the heaters, the team will switch back to the attitude control thrusters. Voyager 2 will join Voyager 1 in interstellar space in a few years, so discovering another way of reorienting these probes is a valuable technique for the future.

Voyager 1 was launched on September 5, 1977.

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