When you flip the key and press the gas pedal for the first time on a car that has been sitting in a garage for decades, you don’t expect it to start.
NASA was able to restart a set of thrusters on board the ship after 37 years, helping it to point its antennas toward Earth so that it may communicate with it once more.
Voyager 1 is the first spacecraft from NASA and JPL to exit the solar system. It is now more than 13 billion miles away from Earth and is flying through interstellar space at a speed of over 35,000 miles per hour.
Voyager 1 has both the primary thrusters and the backup or secondary thrusters, sometimes referred to as TCM thrusters. In the 40 years after the ship traveled through space, its main thrusters have failed, and NASA has lost contact with it since it was unable to steer the ship’s communications antenna toward Earth.
The backup thrusters had remained dormant up to this point. Nasa and JPL researchers are considering reinstalling the backup (back-up) engines in order to reorient the ship to the Earth.
According to Suzanne Dodd, project manager for Voyager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, “we will be able to prolong the life of the Voyager 1 spacecraft by two to three years with these thrusters that are still effective after 37 years without usage.”
To address this issue, NASA and JPL have assembled The Voyager Team, a group of engineers. The team of engineers, which included Chris Jones, Robert Shotwell, Carl Guernsey, and Todd Barber, researched the options and the ship’s behavior under various conditions before coming up with an unconventional strategy to activate the backup thrusters.
According to Jones, chief engineer at JPL, “the Voyager flight crew dug out decades-old data and assessed software that was built in an ancient assembly language to correctly test the thrusters.”
Voyager 1 signals took 19 hours and 35 minutes to get to the Deep Space Network antenna at Goldstone, California, where the crew was stationed.
The team delighted in the unexpected success for which they had worked so hard when they received the signals and understood that everything went according to plan. JPL engineers will apply this strategy to Voyager 2.