NASA suc­cess­fully fires Voy­ager 1 thrusters after 37 years

Sunday Times (Sri Lanka) - - INTERNATIONAL -

WASH­ING­TON, Dec 2 (AFP) - NASA's Voy­ager 1 space­craft -- cruis­ing in­ter­stel­lar space bil­lions of miles from Earth -was back on the right track Fri­day thanks to thrusters that were fired up for the first time in 37 years.

The un­manned space­ship was launched along with its twin, Voy­ager 2, more than 40 years ago to ex­plore the outer plan­ets of our so­lar sys­tem, trav­el­ing fur­ther than any hu­man-made ob­ject in his­tory.

But after decades of op­er­a­tion, the “at­ti­tude con­trol thrusters” that turn the space­craft by fir­ing tiny “puffs” had de­graded. The small ad­just­ments are needed to turn Voy­ager's an­tenna to­ward Earth, al­low­ing it to con­tinue send­ing com­mu­ni­ca­tions.

“At 13 bil­lion miles from Earth, there's no me­chanic shop nearby to get a tuneup,” NASA said in a news re­lease.

Ex­perts at the agency's Jet Propul­sion Lab­o­ra­tory in Cal­i­for­nia de­cided to turn to four backup thrusters that were last used on Novem­ber 8, 1980.

“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,” said Chris Jones, chief en­gi­neer at JPL.

The en­gi­neers fired up the thrusters on Tues­day and tested their abil­ity to turn Voy­ager us­ing 10- mil­lisec­ond pulses. Then they waited 19 hours, 35 min­utes for the test re­sults to ar­rive at an an­tenna in Gold­stone, Cal­i­for­nia.

Turns out the thrusters worked just fine.

“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,” said Todd Bar­ber, a JPL propul­sion en­gi­neer.

Be­ing able to use the backup thrusters means the life­span of Voy­ager 1 has been ex­tended by two or three years, added Suzanne Dodd, pro­ject man­ager for Voy­ager.

NASA plans to switch over to the for­merly dor­mant thrusters in Jan­uary. They will likely also con­duct sim­i­lar tests on the backup thrusters on Voy­ager 2.

Sci­en­tists still hear from the Voy­ager space­craft daily, and ex­pect to get data for about an­other decade.

As­tron­omy text­books were rewrit­ten on a wide scale thanks to the Voy­ager space­craft, which zoomed past Jupiter, Saturn, Nep­tune and Uranus.

The plu­to­nium- pow­ered space­ships will con­tinue un­til they fi­nally run out of fuel, and will then or­bit in the cen­ter of the Milky Way galaxy.

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