Voyager 1 Fires Dormant Thrusters for the First Time in 37 Years

By Nathaniel Scharping | December 1, 2017 4:44 pm
Going bravely where no spacecraft has gone before. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Going bravely where no spacecraft has gone before. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Man, they just don’t build ’em like they used to. The Voyager 1 spacecraft, launched in 1977, has fired up a pair of thrusters that haven’t been used for 37 years. Meanwhile, I’m on my third car in two years.

The set of four small thrusters came online Wednesday after NASA engineers noticed the spacecraft’s attitude control thrusters had been degrading for several years. Those served to make minute adjustments to the craft’s orientation to keep its antenna pointed back at Earth and maintain communications with us as it flies through space. Thankfully, Voyager also has another similar set, called trajectory control maneuver thrusters, that were used in the years after its launch to guide the craft around the various planets it passed on the way out of the solar system.

Past Saturn, though, those thrusters were no longer needed and they went cold. Now, almost four decades later, they’ve come back to life without a hitch to take over for the failing attitude control thrusters. The feat required engineers to unearth data from decades ago, as well as refamiliarize themselves with an outdated computer language. Using the thrusters will take some extra energy, a precious commodity for the aging spacecraft, but NASA says the maneuver will add a few years to the mission’s life.

Traveling at almost 40,000 miles per hour, Voyager 1 is one of the fastest things we’ve ever put into space. It’s currently over 13 billion miles away from our planet and passed into interstellar space back in 2012. Data still flows from Voyager to Earth, though it takes around 19 hours to make the trip. That trickle of information will stop in 2025 when the radioisotope thermoelectric generators cease to provide enough power to run any instruments. But for the moment, we’re still in contact with humanity’s most distant envoy. And, it seems Voyager’s still got a few tricks up its sleeve.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, top posts
  • Gene Douglass

    Cool, maybe the prediction of the first Star Trek movie will come true!!
    V-V-ger may return!!! :-)

    • starskeptic

      If it were the size of V’ger in the movie, it would already be home by now!

    • LamiaLove

      Every time I read anything about Voyager, I think about that damn movie. :))

      • Gene Douglass

        Funny, me too. I decided to make the best of it and laugh. Besides some of us, thought in the absence of other’s till then that the first Star Trek movie was cool anyway! :)

  • starskeptic

    I want to hear your car story, Nathaniel…

  • Uncle Al

    I’m on my third car in two years.” Buy a Honda Civic.

    • elgatoso

      A BMW!!

      • Uncle Al

        I drove from Orange County, CA to Tucson, AZ, 900+ miles round trip hard by 80 mph. 0-W20 in the crankcase, zero oil consumed (!). 39.8 mpg (though half the trip was tanked at Arizona Mile 40, not California puke gasohol). A Bimmer will not do that.

        The Honda was $20K new off the lot, and never saw the dealer again.

        • Erik Bosma

          There’s nothing like a Honda engine. Especially for the price of one. I bought one in 1972 which was the year before they flooded the NA market. Someone had imported one and I bought it from him. What a great car. And those early ones were like Austin Cooper Minis. They flew.

          • Combustioneer

            Try a 5.7 liter hemi. I’ve had three Dodge ram 4×4 pickups, 96, 01, 07 Over 250k hard working miles each. 265K and counting on my present one. None of them have seen a dealer since purchase. 345 horsepower, 19mpg highway, 15 city, 10klbs towing. The new ones have more power and better milage. Honda makes very good cars off little use other than moving people around, so does Toyota, Mazda and especially Subaru. None of those make a work truck that can compare to ram.

          • Uncle Al

            Use the right tool for the job. Remember – anything that works will be legislated against for being a cash pot whispering “:life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” California will ban hydrocarbon-fueled vehicles in the next decade. It has already de facto banned conventional and nuclear power plants from the Sanctuary State. Social Marxism – what could go wrong?

            (China tightens its fist around dysprosium, the dopant stabilizing supermagnets. Electric cars and wind turbines vanish. Hey fools, paradise has parking lots and waste bins.)

          • William J. Woodcock III

            Erik, I had a 1974 CVCC hatchback in the early 80’s, Blew the head gasket out of it three times, (I was young and wanted to go faster than the car was built for) I got really good at changing that gasket by the 3rd time.
            Honda’s marketing : “We make it simple” was so true!
            I still miss that funny little car 😉

    • Steve Zombory

      What year is your Civic, Uncle? This matters quite a bit if the topic is durability/quality in regards to age.

      I’m currently driving a 2011 Accord sedan bought brand-new, and though the engine itself has done the job so far, many other components (clutch, electrical system, consistently weak AC and heat, lots of extraneous noise & vibration due to imprecise tolerances, etc.) aren’t up to the high standard I had expected given their storied reliability.

  • John Keller

    This one little course correction set V’Ger on course to fly into the black hole…and return in 256 years.

  • Erik Bosma

    Hey, that’s 1/500th of a light year. Only 79,960 years to go before it makes it to Alpha Centauri.

    • Uncle Al

      Agency. NASA only works in retrospect

      • Steve Zombory

        Explain further, please.

  • The History Man

    On the electronic side of this, I bought a top of the range Sony radio around 1975 (short wave and normal broadcast bands with FM). It still works perfectly though the case is a little battered due to rough use.
    The Sony radios I bought two or three years ago have long since given up the ghost due to faulty switches, failed components and other faults.
    It is certainly true that manufacturers knew how to build things to last 40 years ago, something that seems to be deliberately excluded from modern manufacturing.
    As we seem to have lost the ability to do this, it makes you wonder how long modern spacecraft will last built with off the shelf components, let alone the ‘generation ships’ some scientists amusingly seem to think will be essential for the survival of the human race.
    Extinction or not will depend on a capacitor made in China on a wet Friday afternoon.

    • LamiaLove

      The old machines are mostly made of steel bars and heavy duty electrical wires, weigh a ton, eat as much power as an electric car, and they never learn new tricks. Of course they last decades. Duh…

      I like how old people are just as spoiled and blind as young people, but they still claim they are somehow better.

      Why don’t you throw away your cell phone and stop using the Internet to post stupid things if you like ancient technology that much? Mkay, dinosaur man?

      • Louis Nardozi

        History Man is right – I don’t need my radio to be a computer, my telephone to be a radio, my washer to be a juicer. Combine that with planned obsolescence, that’s why we don’t have a dryer that lasts 50 years, like my parent’s dryer did.

        • LamiaLove

          Then quit using your phone.
          Did I say that before? If I did, sorry for the double post.

      • John Ellis

        History Man is correct. Quality has been severely eroded by our constant craving to have things cost less. The distinction here is that quality is unrelated to functionality.

        • LamiaLove

          Yeah, sure, everybody builds spaceships with off the shelf parts because spaceships are such a common thing you can buy parts at the grocery store.
          People like you look at things and see whatever they want to see.
          They see a radio built with 3 wires which will obviously last 100 years at least (because IT IS A SIMPLE DEVICE WITH A SIMPLE FUNCTION) no matter if it is built today or 30 years ago and somehow this is proof that today’s tech is garbage for whatever might be their pet peeve.
          Delusional dinosaurs. Delusional dinosaurs everywhere.

          • John Ellis

            LamiaLove, I begin to see a pattern in your posts. You are like a politician; you do not actually reply to other people’s posts, you reply to some inaccurate perception of a post that has formed in your own mind. I never mentioned off-the-shelf parts… Of course reliability does not have to fall as a function of complexity; if it did, almost nothing would work in today’s world.
            And I know you’ll love to know that this dinosaur did once build a radio with nothing but a capacitor, a diode and a piezo earpiece. :o)

          • LamiaLove

            I see patterns in your posts as well.
            You are like a politician; you do not actually reply to other people’s posts, you reply to some inaccurate perception of a post that has formed in your own mind.
            “craving to have things cost less” only exists in off the shelf parts. Custom things like spaceships are not made of off the shelf parts, but of custom parts, which are expensive and not affected by the subject of your whining.
            If you are already old and didn’t even manage to understand this, you wasted your time.

      • X X X Fish

        Such unnecessary aggression from LamiaLove.
        Built-in obsolescence exists because we falsely value GDP over any kind of well-being index. As for asking why anyone who simply recognises that we currently build shoddy crap in order to maximise profits doesn’t forgo all benefits of progress, the answer is “because that would be stupid. Wouldn’t it?”.

        • LamiaLove

          Nobody was talking about built-in obsolescence until you dropped in with your tin foil hat on.

      • boulder82

        Without resorting to name calling, let’s try this. You appear to believe in conflating the era of a particular technology with the value of a person from the same era and the ability to use a technology, If so, I’ll make one more supposition which is that calling The History Man “dinosaur man” implies you are from a younger generation than his. Combine these two, and to avoid being a hypocrite, you should cease use of the Internet and any GUI-based compute device right away. I assume you were born long after DARPA or PARC walked the earth. See how ridiculous that would be? I wouldn’t wish that on you any more than I’d wish someone over age 50 to eschew technology invented after they were born. Live and let live, and even try and bring some empathy or compassion along for the ride.

        • Johan Visser

          Of course things today don’t last as they used to.
          If your TV lasts 20 years, the company that made it is out of business by the time you need to replace it. (need NOT want)
          Things must break down, become obsolete or old fashioned. This is what drives innovation.
          Of course I would like to have my laptop last for 25 years and still running the latest software.
          Lets face it, nobody really wants stuff to be unbreakable. We all want the next new shiny thing the moment we waked the day after we bought the current shiny thing. That makes us human. It has been like this in the past few million years and it will drive us for the next few million years. (If we don’t destroy ourselves before that)

          Me personally, I can’t wait what will be the next new shiny thing that will break down too soon.

        • LamiaLove

          I have no idea what you are rambling about.

      • DannyRo

        LamiaLove, We older people paved the way for the future generations. We don’t claim knowing it better or being smarter. Try to built a radio with some wire, aluminium foil and some first generation transistors. Only then you’ll begin to respect the dinosaurs.

        • Ron Christie

          Of course, if you’re REALLY old you can build a radio receiver with a paper clip, a lead pencil, a razor blade and a little high impedance earbud…

        • LamiaLove

          I didn’t say there was anything wrong with the machines of the time.
          They were just WAY simpler and WAY LESS prone to breaking.
          The ways in which they could fail were fewer.

      • okiejoe

        Never learn new tricks? From Voyager on we built our spacecraft to be highly re-programmable in flight. That was especially important on Galileo when the high gain antenna didn’t deploy and we had to use the low gain antenna exclusively. Of course, we can’t do anything about the power problem. Everything dies.

        • LamiaLove

          You are not contradicting me.
          You just explained why me tech appears (because it’s better in some way than the old tech) and confirmed that things break in time which is what I’ve been trying to explain to the dinosaurs in this discussion.

    • Mr. D

      People are more ‘evil’ these days. :-)
      How are they going to profit if our electronics last 40 years?
      The executives wants the employees to fork out new products three times a year these days. And make them sell.

  • Bigc Arthurwaite

    So impressive

  • Fike Rehman

    This is incredible thinking how cold it is out there…

  • Stuart Warren

    This is proof that it wasn’t powered by Duracell batteries. They would have self destructed years ago. Their new ad campaign is “they are the most trusted battery” but don’t say what they are trusted for? Leaking and damaging your electronics gear. It’s not IF, but WHEN!


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