Voyager 1 investigation fires quiescent thrusters in interstellar space

The twin Voyager spacecraft are celebrating 40 years of continual operation in August and September 2017

The twin Voyager spacecraft are celebrating 40 years of continual operation in August and September 2017

After being unused for 37 years, United States space agency NASA successfully fired up a set of thrusters aboard the Voyager 1 spacecraft last week.

The interstellar probe is 13 billion miles away, moving at a speed of over 17 kilometres per second, but it still manages to send messages back to Earth.

The spacecraft has been traveling space for 40 years and, since 2012, has left our solar system, becoming the first and so far only man-made interstellar object.

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NASA engineers made a decision to try firing the craft's backup thrusters, which have been dormant for 37 years. These thrusters fire in tiny pulses, or "puffs", lasting mere milliseconds, to subtly rotate the spacecraft so that its antenna points at our planet. To extend the life of the mission, researchers came up with the novel idea of reactivating the craft's "trajectory correction maneuver" (TCM) thrusters. "The Voyager team got more excited each time with each milestone in the thruster test", Todd Barber, a propulsion expert in the team, noted. But because Voyager 1's last planetary encounter was Saturn, the Voyager team hadn't needed to use the TCM thrusters since November 8, 1980. It orients itself by firing several 10-millisecond puffs with its thrusters - problem is, the ones it regularly uses haven't been performing as well after four decades in space.

To the team's excitement, not only did the TCM thrusters work for attitude control, they worked just as well as the thrusters that had been intended for the objective.

Voyager's thrusters are powered by hydrazine, and there's enough on board to keep them operational until 2040, but we'll probably lose contact with the spacecraft long before then.

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Now travelling far outside our solar system, and with its primary thrusters on their last legs, NASA chose to conduct a test on its long-rested back-up system.

Voyager 1's scientific instruments are powered by plutonium, and that's expected to stop generating electricity by around 2023 or so - although it may last up to 2025.

This artist rendering released by NASA shows NASA's Voyager 1 spacecraft barreling through space.

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