Voyager 1 Just Fired Up its Backup Thrusters for the 1st Time in 37 Years

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NASA's far-flung Voyager 1 spacecraft has taken its backup thrusters out of mothballs. Voyager 1 hadn't used its four "trajectory correction maneuver" (TCM) thrusters since November 1980, during the spacecraft's last planetary flyby — an epic encounter with Saturn. But mission team members fired them up again Tuesday (Nov. 28), to see whether the TCM thrusters were still ready for primetime. The little engines passed the test with flying colors, NASA officials said. "The Voyager team got more excited each time with each milestone in the thruster test," Todd Barber, a propulsion engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, said in a statement. "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." As Barber's words suggest, the mission team didn’t do this out of idle curiosity. Voyager 1 — which in August 2012 became the first human-made object ever to enter interstellar space — has long been using its standard attitude-control thrusters to orient itself into the proper position to communicate with Earth. But the performance of these thrusters has been flagging for at least three years, so mission team members wanted to find an alternative option. A successful test was far from guaranteed. Not only was the long layoff a potential issue, but the TCM thrusters were designed to burn continuously for relatively long stretches; they had never been fired in the very short bursts employed for attitude control, NASA officials said.

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