After almost forty inactive years roaming the space, the propellers of NASA’s fastest and most distant unmanned spacecraft , Voyager 1, are back on.
This is the only man-made object in interstellar space and the one that has traveled farthest, at an approximate distance of 21,000 million km , leaving behind even our Solar System.
Since its launch on September 5, 1977 , the mission of Voyager 1 has been to locate and study the limits of this planetary system. The ship consists of four devices called “attitude control propellers” that serve so that the probe is oriented automatically and can communicate with the Earth . These thrusters operate by firing short pulses, or “puffs” that last only a few milliseconds, so that they gently turn the ship space and allow your antenna points continuously shape our planet.
With the passage of time, the Voyager team has observed that these devices have been degraded. And is that the propellers increasingly need more puffs to emit the same amount of energy as before. For this reason, since 2014 this wear was monitored and they began to consider how to solve the problem.
A group of experts in propulsion, formed by the researchers, Chris Jones, Robert Shotwell, Carl Guernsey and Todd Barber, analyzed the options and predicted how the ship would respond in different scenarios. They agreed on an unexpected solution : the orientation work would be given to the set of 4 propellers that had been asleep for 37 years.
On November 28, 2017, NASA researchers sent a signal to the spacecraft to reactivate said propellers, inactive since 1980. It took 19 hours and 35 minutes for that message to reach the probe , and it was not until On the 29th they were able to verify that the probe was indeed responding correctly, indicating that the propellers had been activated in 10-millisecond puffs.
“The Voyager flight team has extracted data from decades ago and examined the software, which was encoded in an obsolete language, to ensure that we could test the propellers safely,” says Jones.
Two or three more years of useful life
It is estimated that this action will lengthen the life of the probe between two and three years before its battery runs out completely. At that time, your thermoelectric radioisotope generators will no longer be able to supply enough energy.
The propeller test has been so successful that the team is likely to do a similar test on the propellers of Voyager 2 , the twin spacecraft of Voyager 1. Fortunately, unlike the first, the attitude control thrusters of the Voyager 2 are not yet so worn out. This last probe is also on its way to enter interstellar space in the coming years.