Voyager 1, the only spacecraft sent into interstellar space, was first launched on September 5, 1977 and is now the farthest man-made object from Earth. However, just because it’s 40 years old and over 13 billion miles away, it doesn’t mean it isn’t contactable. That’s right, NASA were able to send a signal that far.
A spacecraft of that age is going to develop some technological issues and Voyager 1 is no exception. It’s altitude control thrusters had been wearing down and these are what the vessel uses to point its antenna toward Earth. This is a bit of a problem because if Voyager 1’s antenna isn’t facing us, then there is absolutely no way of contacting it at all.
NASA is becoming exceptionally good at squeezing every last bit of life out of its hardware and in an effort to prolong the usage out of Voyager 1, scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) discovered they were able to use another set of thrusters on the vessel to do this. If successful, Voyager 1 could still be useful beyond 2020.
The thrusters in question are called trajectory correction maneuver (TCM) thrusters, used by the spacecraft to navigate past planets as it made its way out of the solar system. The problem was that the last time Voyager 1 encountered a planet was Saturn on November 8, 1980, so the thrusters hadn’t been used in 37 years. Still, no harm in trying.
On Tuesday, November 28, NASA fired up the thrusters again, however, they had to wait 19 hours and 35 minutes for confirmation that their mission was a success, as that is how long it took for Voyager 1 to send the results a staggering 13 billion miles back to Earth. That confirmation arrived the following day to great jubilation from everyone involved.
“The Voyager team got more excited each time with each milestone in the thruster test,” Todd Barber from JPL said in a statement. “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.”