We’ve all been there. It’s a cold Christmas morning, you’re running late and your now antique car is giving off that unmistakable vibe that this morning, it’s not going to play ball.
Spare a thought then for the NASA engineers who last week faced this very same prospect but instead of a rusty car they were faced with Voyager 1, a spacecraft that’s 40 years old and is now some 13 billion miles from Earth.
The task was a simple one: they needed to realign Voyager’s antenna so that it would still communicate with Earth and in turn they could extend its mission by up to three years.
The problem however was that the thrusters they’ve traditionally been using are starting to show their age and to be quite honest, might not have done the job.
Now because Voyager 1 is currently the only man made object plummeting through interstellar space, the team were somewhat limited in terms of roadside assistance.
Instead they came up with the idea of using another set of thrusters that Voyager used to use in order to help it navigate around the planets in our solar system.
The “trajectory correction manoeuvre” (TCM) thrusters would be able to do the job, but they came with a significant caveat – they hadn’t been used in over three decades.
That didn’t stop the NASA JPL team though.
“The Voyager flight team dug up decades-old data and examined the software that was coded in an outdated assembler language, to make sure we could safely test the thrusters,” said Chris Jones, chief engineer at JPL.
Using the ancient code, the team sent instructions to Voyager telling it to fire up the thrusters and run a test.
Of course this being Voyager 1 it wasn’t a simple case of just turning the key. The message would take over 19 hours to reach the probe, and then once the test was completed it would take a further 19 hours for NASA’s engineers to find out if it had worked or not.
After hours of nervous waiting, the team got the good news. It had worked.
“The Voyager team got more excited each time with each milestone in the thruster test. The mood was one of relief, joy and incredulity after witnessing these well-rested thrusters pick up the baton as if no time had passed at all,” said Todd Barber, a JPL propulsion engineer.
With the successful test now under their belt, NASA’s Voyager team plans to carry out the full rocket burn in January.
Once that’s done Voyager 1 will have used up almost all of the remaining energy reserves it has. That’s not the end for the spacecraft though as it will continue deeper and deeper into interstellar space. In about 40,000 years, Voyager 1 will drift within 1.6 light-years (9.3 trillion miles) of AC+79 3888, a star in the constellation of Camelopardalis which is heading toward the constellation Ophiuchus.