NASA Fires Up Voyager 1’s TCM Thrusters after 37 Years

Voyager 1 photo of the solar system taken in 1990 showing Earth as a pale blue dot. Source: NASA/JPL
Voyager 1 photo of the solar system taken in 1990 showing Earth as a pale blue dot. Source: NASA/JPL

By Kay Whatley, Editor

My son’s old car sat on the driveway for two months before I tried to move it. Starting the car took me three tries and the engine growled at the effort before finally revving to life. Two months is nothing, though, compared to what NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laborary (JPL) accomplished. NASA announced this week that JPL’s Voyager team has successfully started Voyager 1 equipment that had not been run since 1980.

NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft’s backup “trajectory correction maneuver” TCM thrusters were unused for 37 years, yet Voyager engineers found a way to successfully started the TCM thrusters on Wednesday November 29, 2017.

Voyager 1 relies on small devices called thrusters to orient itself. The thrusters fire in tiny “puffs”  to subtly rotate Voyager 1 so that its antenna points at Earth for communication purposes. In November, though, with the puff thrusters degrading, the Voyager team found a way to re-purpose the spacecraft’s TCM thrusters, dormant since November 8, 1980. When first launched, the TCM thrusters worked in continuous firing mode for control of fight on Voyager 1’s mission past Jupiter, Saturn, and beyond. Last month, these were re-purposed to fire brief bursts for the first time, in an effort to re-orient the spacecraft. According to JPL:

On Tuesday, November 28, 2017, Voyager engineers fired up the four TCM thrusters for the first time in 37 years and tested their ability to orient the spacecraft using 10-millisecond pulses. The team waited eagerly as the test results traveled through space, taking 19 hours and 35 minutes to reach an antenna in Goldstone, California, that is part of NASA’s Deep Space Network.

Lo and behold, on Wednesday, November 29, they learned the TCM thrusters worked perfectly — and just as well as the attitude control thrusters.

Said Suzanne Dodd, project manager for Voyager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL):

“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.”

The team plans to use the TCM thrusters again in January 2018, using Voyager’s heaters and its limited remaining power. The hope is that a similar method might be used for NASA’s Voyager 2.

The thruster test went so well, the team will likely do a similar test on the TCM thrusters for Voyager 2, the twin spacecraft of Voyager 1. The attitude control thrusters currently used for Voyager 2 are not yet as degraded as Voyager 1’s, however.

Voyager 1 took flight on September 5, 1977, from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. It’s mission was to give both Jupiter and Saturn a “flyby” to gather data on these planets. To see some of what humankind has learned from this one-way mission — which has now reached beyond our solar system into “interstellar space” 13 billion miles away — see this NASA page. A gallery of photographs sent back to Earth from Voyager 1 may be viewed in this NASA gallery.

Voyager 1 may be best-known for the “pale blue dot” photograph of Earth, taken February 14, 1990.

Both Voyager 1 and 2 are carrying phonograph records with messages, sounds, and images of Earth, in hopes one day they will reach extraterrestrials and share with them the story of our planet.

For more information about all Voyager spacecraft, visit www.nasa.gov/voyager and voyager.jpl.nasa.gov.

NASA Mission Badge for Voyager. Source: NASA/JPL
NASA Mission Badge for Voyager. Source: NASA/JPL

 

Source: Elizabeth Landau, Jet Propulsion Laboratory

About Kay Whatley 1808 Articles

Kay Whatley serves as Editor and Reporter with The Grey Area News. Kay is a published author with over 20 years of experience in the publishing industry. Kay Whatley is wife to Frank Whatley, founder of The Grey Area™ newspaper and The Grey Area News online news website.