NASA has successfully conducted an engine test on a spacecraft located 13 billion miles away.
Ground controllers sent remote commands to fire up backup thrusters on Voyager 1, the most distant spacecraft to date, CBS News reports. The thrusters had not been in use for 37 years, since Voyager 1 made its trip past Saturn.
The four idle thrusters turned on, to NASA’s excitement. The command took over 19 hours for the team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, to receive the good news.
NASA’s engineers wanted to see if the thrusters could turn Voyager 1’s antenna back to Earth, which is something a different set of thrusters usually takes care of. The operations will continue over the next month, and the whole process could extend the spacecraft’s life by two to three years.
Voyager was launched in 1977 and is now the only spacecraft in interstellar space, or the area beyond the solar system. Voyager 2 is nearing it at 11 billion miles from Earth.
In order to complete the task, the Voyager flight team looked through old records and studied the original software used on the craft. Todd Barber, propulsion engineer, said that the excitement grew as each milestone was accomplished.
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.
Both Voyagers beamed back astounding close-up images of Jupiter and Saturn, and Voyager 2 also provided photos of Uranus and Neptune.
Ed Stone, the chief project scientist for Voyager, told contributor Anderson Cooper, “Once every 176 years, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune are lined up in such a manner you can swing by one onto the next, time after time, over a 12-year journey to get to Neptune. Normally it would take 30 years.”
Stone was 36 years old when he first started working at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where both Voyagers were built.