Voyager 1, NASA's farthest and fastest spacecraft, is the only human-made object in interstellar space, the environment between the stars. So when crucial parts of it start failing, there is nearly no hope. On Friday, NASA engineers were able to successfully fire Voyager 1's backup thrusters - for the first time in 37 years.
Voyager 1 has been hurtling on its way out of the Solar System for the better part of 40 years now, and it's never been more important to keep its antenna pointed to Earth to keep it in touch with NASA engineers.
Fortunately, those aren't the only thrusters onboard.
"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", Suzanne Dodd, Voyager project manager, said in the release.
It uses small thrusters to guide itself a journey through space, firing them in tiny puffs which last milliseconds at a time. The TCMs, on the other hand, fired off continuously when in use. With that hardware in an unreliable state, they had to come up with a solution, and decided that attempting to wake up a set of older thrusters which hadn't been used since Voyager 1 was still making its way around some of our nearby planets. To make the change, Voyager has to turn on one heater per thruster, which requires power - a limited resource for the aging mission. Having slept for almost four decades, the odds seemed low.
Lo and behold, on Wednesday, Nov. 29, they learned the TCM thrusters worked perfectly - and just as well as the attitude control thrusters.
A set of thrusters aboard the Voyager 1 spacecraft, the only human-made object in interstellar space, have been successfully fired up after 37 years without use, United States space agency NASA said. The alternative, however, would be to give the Voyager 1 an early retirement. Unfortunately, since 2014, NASA has noticed that the primary thrusters on Voyager were burning more and more hydrazine to perform the same course corrections. Todd Barber, one of the propulsion experts who looked at the issue closely, said that "The Voyager team got more excited each time with each milestone in the thruster test". That won't happen anytime soon, though, because Voyager 2's original thrusters are still working fine.