Billions of miles from Earth, at the edge of interstellar space, a long-dormant part of a far-flung spacecraft came to life this week.
After 37 years of disuse, a set of thrusters aboard Voyager 1 activated on Wednesday, firing up humanity’s farthest-flung spacecraft and hopefully giving it a longer life than it had before.
“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,” Suzanne Dodd, project manager for Voyager, said in a statement.
This additional life is important for mission controllers working with Voyager because the more data they can pull from this spacecraft, the better. As humanity’s farthest probe, every piece of information beamed back to Earth is new and groundbreaking, therefore scientists are hungry for more.
In 2014, mission managers started noticing that some of Voyager 1’s still in service thrusters — called attitude control thrusters — weren’t working in top form, NASA said.
So the Voyager 1 engineers came up with a new plan.
Instead of continuing to use the attitude control thrusters, they wanted to try to turn on the spacecraft’s trajectory correction maneuver thrusters, which hadn’t been used for nearly 40 years.
And mission controllers were pleasantly surprised by the results. According to NASA, the re-awakened thrusters were just as effective as the attitude control thrusters.
“The Voyager team got more excited each time with each milestone in the thruster test. 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,” Todd Barber, a propulsion engineer, said in the statement.
It took a while for scientists on Earth to actually figure out that the thruster test was successful.
Because of Voyager 1’s extreme distance from Earth, it takes over 19 hours for a message to fly one way to or from Voyager 1.
The trajectory correction maneuver thrusters were originally used to point the spacecraft toward the moons and planets it was flying past during its journey past the major planets of the solar system after its launch in 1977.
Mission controllers are now planning to do the same test on Voyager 2, Voyager 1’s twin spacecraft that’s moving toward interstellar space now.