NASA fires Voyager 1’s engines for the first time in 37 years

Dec 6, 2017

By Leah Crane

It’s alive! By firing a set of thrusters that have been gathering dust for more than 3 decades, NASA has extended the lifetime of the Voyager 1 mission by a few years.

The interstellar probe is 13 billion miles away, moving at a speed of over 17 kilometres per second, but it still manages to send messages back to Earth. In order to do that, it needs to keep its antenna pointed towards us.

After 40 years in space, the thrusters that orient the spacecraft and keep its antenna aiming in the right direction have started to break down.

NASA engineers decided to try firing the craft’s backup thrusters, which have been dormant for 37 years. Then, they had to wait 19 hours and 35 minutes to get a signal from Voyager 1 at the edge of our solar system. The long shot worked, and NASA scientists plan to fully switch over to the backup thrusters in 2020.

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2 comments on “NASA fires Voyager 1’s engines for the first time in 37 years

  • There is now progress in reviving other old satellites and probes to extend their productive lives and avoid the expense of launching new ones! This is establishing a real “in space” commercial refurbishment industry in orbit!

    A UK-headquartered company says it has won a contract to send spacecraft to dock with two existing satellites to extend their lives.

    Effective Space will not name the satellites’ owner at this stage – only that it is a major regional operator.

    The deal is described as being worth more than $100m.

    Effective Space says its two servicing “Space Drones” will be built using manufacturing expertise in the UK and from across the rest of Europe.

    The pair, which will each be sized about the same as a washing machine and weigh less than 400kg, are expected to launch on the same rocket sometime in 2020.

    Once in orbit, they will separate and attach themselves to the two different geostationary telecommunications satellites that are almost out of fuel.

    The drones, using their own propulsion systems, will then take over station-keeping duties 36,000km above the Earth, ensuring the satellites can continue to point in the right direction to transmit their signals.

    Satellite servicing has been talked about as a commercial enterprise for more than decade, but it is only now that the first projects are really coming to market.

    The American operator Intelsat, for example, is buying a similar service from manufacturer Orbital ATK.

    The latter’s initial “Mission Extension Vehicle” should launch later this year.

    Daniel Campbell, the managing director of Effective Space, told BBC News: “While in-orbit servicing has been preached for the last 10 years, the main challenge has been to come up with a solution where the cost [of the space drone] is significantly less than a replacement satellite.”

    Today’s big telecommunications satellites can cost upwards of $300m over their 15-year design lives.

    For a much more modest outlay, an operator can extend this timeframe with one of Effective Space’s drones, so maintaining revenues.

    The London-based company’s initial focus is on station-keeping, but future markets for similar types of servicing vehicle will almost certainly open up for satellite removal.

    Orbits above the Earth are becoming congested, and experts say old and broken hardware needs to be brought out of the sky if the environment is to remain stable.

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