NASA uses 'Plan B' to reorient Voyager 1 in interstellar space

NASA  JPL-Caltech

If you tried to start a vehicle that's been sitting in a garage for decades, you might not expect the engine to respond. The spacecraft will have to turn on one heater on each of the four TCM thrusters, putting a further drain on Voyager 1's decaying plutonium power source.

Voyager 1 is the most distant human-made object, and scientists announced in 2013 the craft's crossing of the boundary between the sun's influence and interstellar space, making it the first mission to explore the void between the stars.

The MR-103 thrusters, provided by Aerojet Rocketdyne, are created to fire in pulses to rotate the spacecraft and keep its 12-foot (3.7-metre) antenna pointed at Earth, but engineers have noticed more firings were needed recently, indicating the jets were losing some of their performance. But those thrusters had not been used in 37 years.

The Voyager 1 spacecraft has fired-up its thruster engines for the first time in 37 years.

Since 2014, the Voyager team has observed that the spacecraft thrusters, known as the attitude control thrusters, have been degrading due to a lack of tune-up. Over time, the thrusters require more puffs to give off the same amount of energy. The Voyager team assembled a group of propulsion experts at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, to study the problem and come up with a "Plan B". Chris Jones, Robert Shotwell, Carl Guernsey and Todd Barber examined options and foretold how the spacecraft would respond in various scenarios.

They agreed on an unusual solution: Try giving the job of orientation to a set of thrusters that had been asleep for 37 years. In its 40 year journey into interstellar space, Voyager 1 completed the objectives of its mission, including flybys of Jupiter, Saturn and Saturn's large moon, Titan. The need to use them is not as immediate, however, because the primary thrusters of Voyager 2 have not significantly degraded. Back then, the TCM thrusters were used in a more continuous firing mode; they had never been used in the brief bursts necessary to orient the spacecraft. It did. After almost four decades of dormancy, the Aerojet Rocketdyne manufactured thrusters fired perfectly. The spacecraft turned and the mood at NASA shifted to jubilation.

The thrusters are an essential component to maintain the probe's communications, as they're used to reorient the direction of its antennae back toward the Earth.

On Tuesday, Voyager engineers sent a command to fire the four "trajectory correction maneuver (TCM)" thrusters and it took 19 hours and 35 minutes for the test results to reach an antenna in Goldstone, California. And yet, when scientists at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory chose to try firing up its old thrusters, they still worked. The JPL will also test out the TCM thrusters on Voyager 1's twin, Voyager 2, although NASA says that that spacecraft's attitude control thrusters are in better shape.

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