If you had a auto sitting in a garage for almost forty years you'd forgive it for not starting with the first turn of the key.
NASA scientists successfully fired up the Voyager 1 spacecraft's thrusters on Wednesday after decades of being dormant. It reached interstellar space in 2012, making it the first object made by humans to leave our solar system.
In recent decades, Voyager had been relying on its primary thrusters to keep the spacecraft properly oriented so that it can maintain a communications link with Earth. However, the thrusters were in a continuous firing mode at the time. But those thrusters had not been used in 37 years.
"With these thrusters that are still functional after 37 years without use, we will be able to extend the life of the Voyager 1 spacecraft by two to three years", Voyager's Project Manager, Suzanne Dodd said.
But the "attitude control thrusters", the first option to make the spacecraft turn in space, have been wearing out. Thrusters need more puffs over time to let out the same energy amount.
As JPL said, "at 13 billion miles from Earth, there's no mechanic shop nearby to get a tune-up". The Voyager team assembled a group of propulsion experts at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, to study the problem and come up with a "Plan B".
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In the early days of the mission, Voyager 1 flew by Jupiter, Saturn, and important moons of each. These are located on the back of the spacecraft and are identical to the thrusters that they've used so far.
According to a statement, the Voyager team chose to go for a bit of a wildcard, agreeing on an "unusual solution" that involved firing up a set of four backup thrusters, which hadn't been used since 1980. The four Aerojet Rocketdyne MR-103 trajectory correction maneuver (TCM) engines were last fired in 1980 when the spacecraft was passing Saturn.
The spacecraft has been using small devices called "attitude control thrusters" to orient itself so it can communicate with Earth, but the thrusters have been degrading since 2014, according to NASA, Xinhua reported.
The thrusts lasted a mere 10-milliseconds, but due to the colossal distance between the probe and its home planet the commands took 19 hours and 35 minutes to reach Voyager. On Nov. 29, it was found that the TCM thrusters were working as good as the attitude control thrusters.
"The Voyager team got more excited each time with each milestone in the thruster test", said Barber, a JPL propulsion engineer.
Unfortunately, the secondary thrusters require power to provide heat to operate - a limited resource on the tiny probe. Voyager 1 was already operating on its backup branch of attitude control thrusters. It's expected to enter deep space within the next few years. JPL is a division of Caltech in Pasadena.