The "attitude control thrusters" have been in decline since 2014, and are now wasting more propellant than ever.
Voyager 1 sped past Jupiter and Saturn on its way out of the solar system.
NASA engineers have to resort to a set of thrusters called "trajectory correction maneuver" (TCM) since the ones that they have been using have degraded past beyond an acceptable point.
"With these engines that are still in operation after 37 years, we will be able to extend the service life of the spacecraft "Voyager 1" in two or three years", said Suzanne Dodd, project Manager for Voyager at the jet propulsion Laboratory of NASA.
Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 were launched 16 days apart in 1977. Back then, the TCM thrusters were used in a more continuous firing mode; they had never been used in the brief bursts necessary to orient the spacecraft.
All of Voyager's thrusters were developed by Aerojet Rocketdyne.
To the team's excitement, not only did the TCM thrusters work for attitude control, they worked just as well as the thrusters that had been intended for the objective. One interesting aspect of this was that the team waiting to hear a response on the thrusters had to wait 19 hours and 35 minutes for it to reach a Deep Space Network antenna located in California. On November 28th, they finally test-fired the backup thrusters, which worked perfectly and rotated the spacecraft just as well as the primary ones can.
"The Voyager team got more excited each time with each milestone in the thruster test", Todd Barber, NASA propulsion engineer, said in the release.
Now travelling far outside our solar system, and with its primary thrusters on their last legs, NASA made a decision to conduct a test on its long-rested back-up system. To make the change, Voyager has to turn on one heater per thruster, which requires power - a limited resource for the aging mission. The team might conduct a similar test with Voyager 2's backups to ensure it can also send data back after it follows its older sibling to interstellar space in a few years' time.
The Voyager spacecraft were built by JPL, which continues to operate both.
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