Sci-tech

Humanity's Most Distant Traveler Still Going After 37 Years, 13 Billion Miles

Humanity's Most Distant Traveler Still Going After 37 Years, 13 Billion Miles

As humanity's first visitor to interstellar space, NASA's Voyager 1 has revealed itself to be a trooper, answering commands that take nearly 20 hours to arrive, and performing routine tasks and transmitting data back (another 20-hour one-way call) to the home planet.

For auto read Voyager 1, and for engine read a set of four trajectory thrusters, and that's exactly what NASA boffins have done.

The Voyagers will continue on their journeys forever, but their ability to communicate back to Earth to tell the tales of their exploration is limited not only by the thrusters, but by the power sources that provide electricity and warmth to keep the instruments operating.

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NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory engineer Todd Barber said: "The Voyager team got more excited each time with each milestone in the thruster test". The Voyager team assembled a group of propulsion experts at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, for the job. Switching to the smaller "trajectory correction maneuver" rockets, that have not been used since a 1980 flyby of the planet Saturn, allows for less drain on the batteries. They got their answer 19 hours and 35 minutes later, the time it took for the results to reach Earth: The set of four thrusters worked perfectly.

After reviewing decades-old data and software "that was coded in an outdated assembler language", JPL engineers, led by JPL Chief Engineer Chris Jones, determined it was safe to attempt to fire them. The same kind of thruster, called the MR-103, flew on other NASA spacecraft as well, such as Cassini and Dawn. 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. According to NASA, the re-awakened thrusters were just as effective as the attitude control thrusters.

The plan going forward is to switch to the TCM thrusters in January.

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In 2014, mission managers started noticing that some of Voyager 1's still in service thrusters - called attitude control thrusters - weren't working in top form, NASA said.

In 1977, the twin spacecrafts Voyager 1 and 2 were launched, 16 days apart. JPL operates Voyager and the Deep Space Network (DSN) that receives the signals. With this example before them, NASA laid a more ambitious message aboard Voyager 1 and 2, a kind of time capsule, meant to relate a story of our world to aliens. The Voyager missions are a part of the NASA Heliophysics System Observatory, sponsored by the Heliophysics Division of the Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

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