So NASA's plan B was to fire up its four back-up thrusters, on the rear of Voyager 1, for the first time since 1980. They are identical to the attitude control thrusters and located on the back of the spacecraft. The small adjustments are needed to turn Voyager's antenna toward Earth, allowing it to continue sending communications.
They wanted to reposition Voyager 1, which, at 21 billion kilometres away is the space agency's most far-flung spaceship. 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.
Voyager 1 has a twin, Voyager 2, that flew past not only Jupiter and Saturn, but Uranus and Neptune, and is now headed out of the solar system on a different path. JPL says Voyager 2's attitude control thrusters are still fine, but they will likely do a test of its TCM thrusters to determine their status.
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"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", said Suzanne Dodd, project manager for Voyager at JPL.
Voyager 1 was launched in 1977 and flew past Jupiter and Saturn in 1979 and 1980 respectively. In the year 40,272, Voyager 1 will get within two light years of a star in the Little Dipper constellation, and Voyager 2 will reach a similar distance from a star in the Andromeda constellation.
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NASA reported earlier this week that, for the first time in decades, Voyager 1 had its thrusters, which have remained otherwise dormant for almost 40 years, fired up to adjust its trajectory. The mood was one of relaxation, joy and wonder after observing these well-rested thrusters pull up the baton as if no time had moved at all.
"The Voyager flight team dug up decades-old data and examined the software that was coded in an outdated assembler language, to make sure we could safely test the thrusters", Jet Propulsion Laboratory chief engineer Chris Jones wrote.
The team will switch over to the TCM thrusters in January, but there is a drawback: they require heaters to operate, which will draw on the probe's limited power.
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Voyager 2 is also on course to enter interstellar space, likely within the next few years, and now, its attitude control thrusters are still functioning well. The attitude control thrusters now used for Voyager 2 are not yet as degraded as Voyager 1's, however. Although the devices are still working, a few years ago engineers began to notice they were deteriorating.