Humanity's Most Distant Traveler Still Going After 37 Years, 13 Billion Miles

NASA's Voyager 1 spacecraft has fired a set of four control thrusters for the first time in 37 years, giving the long-lived probe a new way to point itself on its cruise into interstellar space 13 billion miles from Earth. In its 40 year journey into interstellar space, Voyager 1 completed the objectives of its mission, including flybys of Jupiter, Saturn and Saturn's large moon, Titan.

Voyager 2 lags behind, but according to NASA, the spacecraft is following the lead of the first Voyager and is on course to enter interstellar space in the coming years.

First launched all the way back on September 5th, 1977 the Voyager 1 space probe remains one of the United States' space exploration history's crowning achievements. The probe now uses its attitude control thrusters to make tiny corrections - firing for only milliseconds at a time - to rotate it to point its antenna towards Earth. It's now more than 11.7 billion miles away, past the heliopause to the point that it can observe the solar system from the outside.

Engineers had to do some detective work to make sure the thrusters could be safely tested.

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After sending the commands on Tuesday, it took 19 hours and 35 minutes for the signal to reach Voyager.

The spacecraft - now over 141 times the distance between the earth and the sun - is expected to go dark some time in the next five years as the remaining energy is depleted. Back then, the TCM thrusters were utilized in a more constant firing mode; they had never been used in the brief explosions necessary to orient the spacecraft.

Humanity's most distant spacecraft surprised its operators by answering the call to fire up rockets that have not been used in nearly 40 years. On November 28, the team sent out instructions to the far away spacecraft to fire up the secondary thrusters.

The secondary thrusters worked perfectly, orienting the probe just as the scientists had hoped. Its fellow spacecraft, Voyager 2, is on its way there, too - and both carry a small American flag and a "Golden Record", which is packed with mementos from Earth in the form of pictures and sounds. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) said today that engineers began noticing in 2014 that the attitude control thrusters were degrading. This finding prompted NASA engineers at the JPL in Pasadena, California to examine the issue. The plan right now is to switch to the TCM thrusters in January. The Voyager missions are a part of the NASA Heliophysics System Observatory, sponsored by the Heliophysics Division of the Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The attitude control thrusters now used for Voyager 2 are not yet as degraded as Voyager 1's, however.

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