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Fueled By Science: An Old NASA Spacecraft Wakes Up For The First Time In Decades

Something incredible just happened in the far reaches of space. Voyager 1, the only man-made spacecraft to leave our solar system and reach interstellar space, just fired up its dormant thrusters for the first time in 37 years. 

Let's put that into perspective. My two-year-old car has trouble starting in the dead of winter sometimes. This is a piece of technology that has been floating in the coldness of space for 40 years.

Voyager 1 was launched September 5, 1977, 16 days after Voyager 2. Both crafts had different paths through our solar system to collect data about the planets and their moons. Voyager 1 last fired its trajectory correction maneuver thrusters, or TCM's, as it flew by the planet Saturn in 1980.

 

The spacecraft's primary thrusters have been degrading over the past few years, and they were used to keep the craft, and it's antenna, pointed back towards Earth. The spacecraft still transmits data via radio waves, monitored by NASA's Deep Space Network. But, with the spacecraft not being able to correct its orientation, the team of scientists needed to fire up it's TCM thrusters once again.

Voyager 1 is currently 21 billion kilometers, or 13 billion miles, from Earth. As a reference, Earth is a mere 93 million miles from the Sun. That is pretty far away. The team of scientists had unearthed old data and relearn ancient computer programs to tell the spacecraft to perform the thruster burn.

It took 19 hours and 35 minutes for the signal to reach Voyager 1, and then another 19 hours and 35 minutes for it to respond if the thrusters had worked. Each of the four thrusters had to fire up a heater to get them started, and each thruster fired perfectly, for the first time in almost four decades.

This means that Voyager 1 will be able to keep transmitting data to Earth until 2025 when all the power will be depleted and the systems will fail. But it still will serve an important purpose. The spacecraft has a Golden Record, with instructions for use and it contains sounds, pictures, and world music that encapsulates mankind. The record is made of gold and will last a billion years in space, possibly becoming the last trace of humanities existence.

 

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