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Humanity's Most Distant Traveler Still Going After 37 Years, 13 Billion Miles
04 December 2017, 01:26 | Jermaine Blake
Enlarge Image This artist's depiction imagines what Voyager 1 looked like when crossing into interstellar space. NASA JPL-Caltech
"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", said Suzanne Dodd, project manager for Voyager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, on Friday.
However, over the past three years, scientists at Nasa noticed that the main "attitude control thrusters" of the spacecraft, which reorient its antennas towards our planet and help with communication, had been wearing out with time. At 13 billion miles from Earth, there's no technician workshop nearby to get a tune-up.
The engineers tested their ability to orient the spacecraft using 10-millisecond pulses, which enabled the signals from the spacecraft reach an antenna in Goldstone, California, in about 19 hours and 35 minutes on Wednesday.
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.
Todd Barber from JPL also said: "The Voyager team got more excited each time with each milestone in the thruster test".
"The Voyager flight team dug up decades-old data and examined the software that was coded in an outdated assembler language, to make sure we could safely test the thrusters", Jet Propulsion Laboratory chief engineer Chris Jones wrote.
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The Voyager team chose to try using the TCM thrusters, which were created to accurately point the spacecraft as it passed Jupiter and Saturn and their moons. However, we can still communicate with Voyager across that distance.
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. It did. After almost four decades of dormancy, the Aerojet Rocketdyne manufactured thrusters fired perfectly. (They are not nuclear reactors.) The RTGs lose about 4 watts of power each year and the spacecraft are moving further away.
Voyager 2 is also on course to enter interstellar space, likely within the next few years, and now, its attitude control thrusters are still functioning well.
The MR-103 thrusters, provided by Aerojet Rocketdyne, are created to fire in pulses to rotate the spacecraft and keep its 12-foot (3.7-metre) antenna pointed at Earth, but engineers have noticed more firings were needed recently, indicating the jets were losing some of their performance.
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.
Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 were launched 16 days apart in 1977.
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