NASA Just Communicated With Our Only Spacecraft Outside The Solar System

NASA receives transmission from a spacecraft that's 13 billion miles away from Earth

Voyager 1 investigation fires quiescent thrusters in interstellar space

The Voyager team had noticed diminishing returns on these thrusters since 2014, with the thrusters needing to fire up more often to give off the same amount of energy. The last time they were needed was 8 November, 1980 - to stay on course when Voyager 1 was flying by Saturn. This job usually falls to the attitude control thrusters, but after 40 years in space those are beginning to weaken.

NASA's Voyager 1 spacecraft has propelled a set of four control thrusters in the first place in 37 years granting the enduring enquiry, a novel method to point itself on its cruise into interstellar space 13 billion miles from Earth.

These small backup thrusters use hydrazine propellant and could be vital to extending Voyager 1's mission. 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.

Still, the team though the TCM thrusters might suit their purposes, so on November 28, they chose to fire them up with 10-millisecond pulses to test if they could be a viable replacement for the almost spent thrusters. One interesting aspect of this was that the team waiting to hear a response on the thrusters had to wait 19 hours and 35 minutes for it to reach a Deep Space Network antenna located in California. "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", said Barber, a JPL propulsion engineer.

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Now travelling far outside our solar system, and with its primary thrusters on their last legs, NASA made a decision to conduct a test on its long-rested back-up system. When there is no longer enough power to operate the heaters, the team will switch back to the attitude control thrusters.

NASA added it will likely do a similar test on the TCM thrusters for Voyager 2, the twin spacecraft of Voyager 1. Voyager 1 is farther from Earth than Voyager 2, due to differences in their missions and trajectories, at an estimated 141 AU from Earth (1 AU is the distance between Earth and the sun).

The Voyager spacecraft were built by JPL, which continues to operate both.

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