NASA Voyager thrusts for first time

NASA receives transmission from a spacecraft that's 13 billion miles away from Earth

Voyager was launched in 1977 and is now the only spacecraft in interstellar space, or the area beyond the solar system.

Stone was 36 years old when he first started working at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where both Voyagers were built.

Voyager 1 and 2 achieve 40 years of operation and exploration this August and September.

They worked perfectly, allowing the spacecraft to reorient itself so it can continue to communicate with Earth. At 13 billion miles from Earth, there's no mechanic shop nearby to get a tune-up.

To NASA's delight, the four dormant thrusters came alive.

Corbis via Getty Images                   The original Voyager 2 mission control room. Things have changed quite a bit since then
Corbis via Getty Images The original Voyager 2 mission control room. Things have changed quite a bit since then

But after four decades of exploration which have taken in fly-bys of Jupiter and Saturn, engineers found that the primary thrusters which orient the space probe had severely degraded. Voyager 1 also has "trajectory correction maneuver" thrusters or TCMs, but they worked differently and were used for a different objective, despite having the same build. The team was delighted when the results of their test were resoundingly positive. 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.

When those small thrusters began to deteriorate, the engineers hit on an idea: use the large thrusters in tiny bursts to spin the craft. Voyager 1 is farther from Earth than Voyager 2, due to differences in their missions and trajectories, at an estimated 141 AU from Earth (1 AU is the distance between Earth and the sun).

"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, according to a NASA statement. At 13 billion miles from earth, the response from Voyager 1 takes 19 hours and 35 minutes to reach the Voyager team, even when the signal travels at the speed of light.

Still, the team though the TCM thrusters might suit their purposes, so on November 28, they made a decision to fire them up with 10-millisecond pulses to test if they could be a viable replacement for the almost spent thrusters.

The last time these engines were run in 1980.

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