NASA’s fastest and farthest spacecraft has just got a new lease of life

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If you have been following us you know something about NASA’s recent space missions such as the spectacular Cassini mission to Saturn that ended in 2017 or the ongoing Juno mission around Jupiter! Now one of NASA’s older spacecraft is in the news.

The Voyager 1 spacecraft launched from Earth on September 5, 1977. The first part of its mission was to take a grand tour of the solar system’s outer planets – Jupiter and Saturn. Flying by these planets, it took some of the first high-resolution photographs of them and their moons, and making all sorts of interesting discoveries about them. The Voyager 1 told us that Jupiter has rings, that its moon Io has erupting volcanos and that Saturn has extremely high-speed winds.

Photo Credit: NASA

After passing Jupiter and Saturn, it kept flying. In 2012, it crossed the border from the solar system to interstellar space – part of space that exists between stars. Yes, Voyager 1 is the first man-made satellite to enter interstellar space. There are other spacecrafts such as Voyager 2 that are also expected to join Voyager 1 within the next few years.

So why is the Voyager 1 spacecraft back in the news?

The spacecraft relies on small devices called thrusters to orient itself so it can communicate with the space station on Earth. Voyager 1 periodically uses its main attitude control thrusters to keep its communications antenna aimed at Earth. However, engineers noticed that these thrusters have deteriorated after 40 years in space.

A diagram of the Voyager 1 Photo Credit: NASA

Engineers considered firing up a set of Trajectory Course Maneuvering (TCM) thrusters that are identical in size and shape to the main attitude control thrusters. They are located on the back of the spacecraft.

When Voyager 1 flew past Jupiter and Saturn, it had to steer around the planets and moons. It used these TCM thrusters in order to do that. The thrusters fired tiny, quick pulses to change the craft’s direction. However, Voyager 1 hadn’t used those thrusters since it passed Saturn on November 8, 1980. No one was even sure if they still worked after so long.

Last week, NASA engineers sent a test signal to the TCM  thrusters on November 28. Because the craft is so far away, the message took 19 hours and 35 minutes to get there. Then it took the same amount of time for the response to come back to Earth. Amazingly, the thrusters worked perfectly!

Voyager 1 continues to fly away from our Sun. Every second, NASA’s fastest spacecraft flies another 11 miles (18 km). Thanks to the ingenious engineers, NASA will be able to talk to the Voyager 1 spacecraft for longer.

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