After Almost 40 Years a NASA Probe’s Thrusters Fire in Deep Space


By: Gaia Staff  |  April 1st, 2018

After being dormant for almost 40 years, the thrusters on NASA’s Voyager 1 probe fired up, allowing the craft to orient itself to communicate with Earth. The last time the thrusters were used was in 1980.

This past December, NASA scientists tested the thrusters after noticing they had been degrading over time from normal wear and tear. Voyager 1 has travelled more than 13 billion miles from Earth at a speed of 35,000 miles per hour. It is the farthest man-made object and also the first satellite to reach interstellar space.

The craft has lasted significantly longer than its expected journey to study the planets at the outer edges of our solar system. Voyager 1 has sent back amazing images of Uranus, Jupiter, Saturn, and their many moons and rings.

But now, scientists at NASA’s JPL lab in California have fired up the crafts thrusters to angle it in a way that it’s satellite faces Earth to send and receive data. The team is only firing Voyager’s thrusters in millisecond-long blasts to conserve energy and maintain the craft’s systems.

In the past, Voyagers thrusters were used for longer boosts to put it on the proper trajectory, but now short, small bursts are all that’s necessary. The probe is powered by a radioisotope thermoelectric generator that derives energy from radioactive plutonium.

Following not too far behind is Voyager 2, some three billion miles away. Aboard both probes are records containing a multitude of greetings, disparate music from all over the world, and instructions for how to play the record in the event an alien civilization were to ever find it.

The greetings range from Akkadian, the language spoken in ancient Sumer, to Wu a Chinese dialect. There are also a number of images of mathematical equations, DNA, humans, books, and planets in our solar system.

So, how long will these probes continue to transmit data back to Earth? Probably within the next few decades NASA will consider shutting off the probes’ power supplies, allowing them to continue their drift into the unknown. After then, who knows what will become of their journey.

Every day NASA receives transmissions from Voyager 1 and 2, though it takes around 19 and 16 hours for them to reach Earth, respectively. NASA’s web of satellites known as the Deep Space Network receive the signals and beam them back to Earth for decoding. As the probes get further away, the DSN can focus all of the satellites to act as a single receiver to hear the distant pings.

But as the probes eventually drift further into deep space there won’t be much to report back, making their voyage quite dull for an indefinite period of time.

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