Cape Canaveral, Florida (AP) – NASA has conducted an engine test on a spacecraft at 13 billion miles.
Last week, ground controllers sent commands to fire backup thrusters on Voyager 1, our most distant spacecraft. The propellers had been inactive for 37 years, since Voyager 1 flew over Saturn.
To the delight of NASA, the four sleeping propellers came to life. It took more than 19 hours, the unidirectional travel time for signals, for the drivers of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, to get the good news.
The engineers wanted to see if these alternative propellers could point to the Voyager 1 antenna toward Earth, a job normally handled by a different set that is now degrading. The propellers will take the signaling operations next month. The switch could extend the life of Voyager 1 in two or three years.
Launched in 1977, Voyager 1 is the only spacecraft that travels through interstellar space, the region beyond our solar system. Voyager 2 is close, almost 11 billion miles from Earth. The propeller test worked so well that NASA hopes to test it on Voyager 2. However, that will not happen soon, because the original engines of Voyager 2 still work well.
The Voyager flight team unearthed old records and studied the original software before boarding the test. As each milestone in the test was reached, the level of excitement grew, said propulsion engineer Todd Barber.
"The mood was one of relief, joy and disbelief after seeing these well-rested propellers raise the cane as if there had not been approved time at all," he said in a statement.
The twin Voyager provided stunning close-up views of Jupiter and Saturn. Voyager 2 also offered shots of Uranus and Neptune.