Voyager 1 fires TCM thrusters for the first time in 37 years
December 2, 2017 10:47 PM   Subscribe

"Since 2014... the thrusters Voyager 1 has been using to orient the spacecraft... have been degrading". These attitude control thrusters perform small but critical adjustments that keep the spacecraft's communication antenna oriented with the Earth. A group of JPL propulsion experts assembled by the Voyager team proposed an "unusual solution" - to test the trajectory correction maneuver (TCM) thrusters Voyager used during planetary and moon encounters as it passed through the solar system. But the last time these thrusters had been used was during the Saturn flyby - in November 1980.

On Wednesday, Nov. 29, communications on the test results completed their 19 hour and 35 minute, 13 billion mile journey, and the Voyager team learned that the TCM thrusters had "worked perfectly". The successful deployment of the thrusters is expected to extend the Voyager 1 mission by 2-3 years.

More on the Voyager missions recently on Metafilter.
posted by nanojath (47 comments total) 41 users marked this as a favorite
 
Sometimes there's a flicker of hope for humanity. This is one of those occasions.
posted by cgc373 at 11:01 PM on December 2 [9 favorites]


V-ger!!!
posted by Homo neanderthalensis at 11:01 PM on December 2 [18 favorites]


Great post. That JPL twitter video in the first link with all pictures of the outer planets is outstanding.

19 and a half hours away at the speed of light . Wooohooo!
posted by ActingTheGoat at 11:04 PM on December 2 [3 favorites]


We should be launching a new version of Voyager every year like a smartphone model.
posted by Burhanistan at 1:09 AM on December 3 [46 favorites]


19 and a half hours away at the speed of light . Wooohooo!

I get anxious when people don't respond to my texts within like 20 minutes. I can't imagine how they must have felt having to wait almost 40 hours to find out that the thrusters worked. Wow.
posted by Literaryhero at 2:24 AM on December 3 [3 favorites]


19 and a half hours away at the speed of light . Wooohooo!

Almost a light day away.
posted by fairmettle at 2:42 AM on December 3 [3 favorites]


Loved the post! (And the prior ones about the people keeping the mission going). A good way to keep some perspective (about 20 billion miles of it) on earthbound matters...
posted by AW74 at 3:15 AM on December 3


Voyager team assembled a group of propulsion experts at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, to study the problem. Chris Jones, Robert Shotwell, Carl Guernsey and Todd Barber analyzed options and predicted how the spacecraft would respond in different scenarios

What I would give to be a fly on the wall and not understand a damn thing they said.
posted by nestor_makhno at 4:00 AM on December 3 [14 favorites]


I guess storing things in the dark deep freeze of space is going to keep them working. Now, if they'd left it outside on a field in Florida it would've never worked.
posted by Bee'sWing at 6:13 AM on December 3


We should be launching a new version of Voyager every year like a smartphone model.

In 2017 we now plan to use a rocket as a valet to park a billionaire's car on mars.
posted by srboisvert at 6:50 AM on December 3 [11 favorites]


In all seriousness, sending numerous probes in every direction is probably not a great idea. We want to find, but we do not want to be found.
posted by schmod at 7:06 AM on December 3


WARNING: Infinite Rabbit-hole Ahead. If you got anything productive to do, don't click the links.

JPL and CalTech apparently have a Deep Space Communications and
Navigation Center of Excellence
and they got ALL SORTS of technical papers.

This here one, Chapter 3: Voyager Telecommunications - Roger Ludwig, Jim Taylor has pretty much everything you never thought you wanted to know in it...

You have been warned, we'll see you in about 6 hours.
posted by mikelieman at 7:12 AM on December 3 [10 favorites]


"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,“

The people who programmed the thing are long since gone, & i bet there was a not insignificant risk that the knowledge to do this could have been utterly lost.
posted by Devils Rancher at 7:31 AM on December 3 [1 favorite]


One tweet:
I feel a sense of sublimity (Burkean) when I think of these distances, the years of building and travel, and the hours of light-speed responses. The scales seem like a cosmic slide rule, calculating the routes of spirit and striving.
posted by doctornemo at 7:37 AM on December 3 [2 favorites]


The people who programmed the thing are long since gone, & i bet there was a not insignificant risk that the knowledge to do this could have been utterly lost.

We're talking about pretty low-level stuff here. Traditionally, this is when I'd break out some paper, label one sheet "Registers" and another "Memory", and using a ruler, go through it line-by-line making notes of what it's doing.

"Artisanal Disassembly"
posted by mikelieman at 7:39 AM on December 3 [11 favorites]


Voyager was launched 40 years ago; it's not like everyone who worked on it is dead. Maybe mostly retired but I'm sure some of the old boys are glad to come in and offer advice if needed. Also projects like this are meticulously documented and designed for longevity and transparency. All of which is to say it's not an accident that folks can still work on Voyager, it's not even heroic. It's good engineering culture. Here's a little bit about it from 2013.

The thing that amazes me is when we send hot fixes to firmware out to some remote spacecraft. Voyager has gotten updates over time. Including in 2010 when they realized a bit had flipped on them and they flipped it back.

I'm more impressed that mechanical systems involving highly volatile fuel still work. Also that NASA was willing to take the risk to try it out. I imagine they had modeled all the possible ways it would fail before trying it, but also still everyone breathed a sigh of relief when it worked.
posted by Nelson at 8:03 AM on December 3 [8 favorites]


Given the times, I'm frankly amazed that the Voyager team hasn't been unceremoniously let go and the craft abandoned. Seems like it would be an easy expense to zero-out, so we can assure those tax cuts to the billionaires.
posted by Thorzdad at 8:15 AM on December 3 [5 favorites]


We want to find, but we do not want to be found.

Even if this was a serious concern...

Voyager 1 is 40 years old and is now ~19/5 light hours away. Wow that sounds far. That's... 19.5/(24*365) light years. Or um, 0.0022 light years. Less than a quarter of a percent of a light year. Here's a list of the nearby stars, the closest of which is over 2000 times farther from earth than Voyager 1 is today. It would take 80000 years for to make that journey.

Space is... big.
posted by aspo at 8:40 AM on December 3 [8 favorites]


In 2017 we now plan to use a rocket as a valet to park a billionaire's car on mars.

I think that as long as it's his rocket and his car he can do as he pleases.
posted by hat_eater at 8:48 AM on December 3 [3 favorites]


Especially if he has to put something on top of it anyway, if he wants to put his original Roadster in a heliocentric orbit near Mars or even in Mars orbit, I see zero problem with that. It's not as if he's launching the FH just for shits and giggles. Well maybe that too, but there's also an actual purpose, which is expanding the range of payloads that can be launched and the distance to which they can be launched on SpaceX's stupid cheap rockets. Is it any worse than a wheel of cheese? I don't think so. Worse than some tungsten or steel mass simulator? Also no. There's definite PR value in blasting Space Oddity from the Roadster's stereo while it launches. Getting people excited about space in particular and engineering in general is an unmitigated good thing.

As far as Voyager goes it makes me deeply sad that they will be incommunicado around 2025. I'd rather think about a Roadster being flung in Mars' direction a couple of months from now than how for want of a new set of thermoelectric junctions the Voyagers will go silent despite their RTGs continuing to produce enough radiation for thousands more years. (They produce much less now than in 1977, but still quite a lot. Problem is the radiation damages the semiconductors used to harvest the energy, so they also degrade over time, thus causing the available energy to drop far faster than the radiation source decays.
posted by wierdo at 9:09 AM on December 3 [2 favorites]


We should be launching a new version of Voyager every year like a smartphone model.

Sadly we'll have to wait for 2151 for the proper planetary alignment so that the slingshot trajectories work out. Which is very fortunate that the thing was greenlighted in the first place (as a Jupiter/Saturn mission that was cleverly engineered to last longer) as Nixon was shuttering NASA programs that he perceived as being linked to Kennedy (sound familiar?)
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 9:10 AM on December 3 [5 favorites]


Maybe mostly retired but I'm sure some of the old boys are glad to come in...

Women. More Voyager women, as well as others. Plus the first compiler was written by a woman, and the first assembly language was designed by a woman.

Know your history.
posted by fraula at 9:29 AM on December 3 [33 favorites]


Space is... big.

I mean, you may think it's a long way down the road to the chemist, but that's just peanuts to space.
posted by fedward at 9:35 AM on December 3 [11 favorites]


Thank you for the correction fraula.
posted by Nelson at 9:43 AM on December 3 [4 favorites]


I think that as long as it's his rocket and his car he can do as he pleases.

He gets federal contracts you know? Plus there's the thing about putting an unsterilized hunk of metal on a place we'd like to test for life. So no, fuck him.
posted by dilaudid at 10:17 AM on December 3 [1 favorite]


Umm, it isn't being landed on Mars. If you're going to criticize, at least criticize what he's actually doing. There are plenty of things that deserve it.

As far as federal contracts go, what does that have to do with anything? Something has to be put on the rocket, and nobody wants to put their useful payload on a never-launched rocket for obvious reasons. Does it really make a difference whether it's a 15 year old Tesla Roadster or a newly fabricated chunk of tungsten or steel or a giant wheel of cheese? I guess I don't understand why you care?
posted by wierdo at 10:58 AM on December 3 [2 favorites]


Computers in Spaceflight: The NASA Experience. Chapter 6 on Voyager.
posted by Nelson at 11:27 AM on December 3 [4 favorites]


Junk in spaaaace!
posted by BlueHorse at 12:01 PM on December 3


Computers in Spaceflight: The NASA Experience

That needed a warning. I just lost 2 hours.
posted by mikelieman at 12:51 PM on December 3 [1 favorite]


The AMAZING documentary on the Voyager missions, The Farthest, is currently on Netflix. It did my soul good after a very stressful week to see American humanity at its best. What an achievement.
posted by Captain l'escalier at 1:34 PM on December 3 [6 favorites]


Here's a list of the nearby stars, the closest of which is over 2000 times farther from earth than Voyager 1 is today. It would take 80000 years for to make that journey.

It's not as though Voyager 1 is going to pass particularly close to AC +79 3888 in 40,000 years. It's going to be 1.7 light years away. As I have to say whenever these threads come up, people really don't understand the scale of the universe, either in terms of distance or time.
posted by happyroach at 3:04 PM on December 3 [1 favorite]


> I think that as long as it's his rocket and his car he can do as he pleases.

With our atmosphere? He can fuck right the fuck off.
posted by scruss at 6:58 PM on December 3 [1 favorite]


What dummy payload do you propose they put on the top of the Falcon Heavy instead? They can use 1300 kg of fresh lead or steel slug, if you like. Alternately, 1300 kg of old car.
posted by introp at 8:21 PM on December 3


#TeamSpaceCheese
posted by RakDaddy at 10:32 PM on December 3 [4 favorites]


Re: The Farthest, I randomly discovered it and was like halfway through when I thought, "I should post this on that thread" and lo, there it already was. If that helps your soul, you should also watch In the Shadow of the Moon, which isn't on Netflix but is on Amazon Prime.
posted by fedward at 9:45 AM on December 4


Man, the one and only super ridiculously rich dude who seems to be actively trying to save our planet and species sure is getting a lot of hate around here for putting a stupid car into space...
posted by Grither at 10:21 AM on December 4 [2 favorites]


Hey, I'm all for super rich dudes doing cool things like launching stuff into space, but sending that car to Mars is still silly enough that I want to crowd-fund launching a no parking sign there first.
posted by The Man from Lardfork at 10:28 AM on December 4 [1 favorite]


wierdo: " Something has to be put on the rocket, and nobody wants to put their useful payload on a never-launched rocket for obvious reasons."

That's bullshit. At a minimum some community college somewhere would have been more than happy to supply some sort of observational payload meeting mass and force resistance requirements. Even if the package didn't work it would have been of more use (if only to the students) than launching a car. The payload chosen is pure ego stroke for Musk and marketing for Tesla.
posted by Mitheral at 10:29 AM on December 4 [3 favorites]


I want to crowd-fund launching a no parking sign there first

Well, he knows there's nobody else capable of towing it, so it probably wouldn't stop him.

As for the missed opportunity for 1200 pounds of Science!, I'm of two minds, not necessarily incompatible: (1) launch insurance is a real thing, so by sending up literal junk (his own, branded junk, of course) they can set a value of $0 on the payload and thus have less liability on the insurance for the first launch; (2) it could just be a publicity stunt until some university (or consortium of universities) comes along to say "hey, let us put a student Science! payload in there, which we'll also agree is worth $0 for insurance purposes."
posted by fedward at 10:55 AM on December 4 [1 favorite]


Except it's not like auto insurance, one isn't required to have launch insurance. Projects mostly do because whatever you are launching is almost by definition expensive.
posted by Mitheral at 11:33 AM on December 4


“Moreover, for launches licensed by FAA, since the Commercial Space Launch Act Amendments of 1988, FAA has required launch companies (firms that conduct or will conduct the launch of vehicles and payloads) to purchase insurance to cover damage to the uninvolved public, as well as damage to federal government property, in case of a launch mishap. Launch participants may also choose to negotiate additional insurance coverage through launch-specific contracts.” (GAO report)

You can choose not to insure the payload but the launch itself has to be insured.
posted by fedward at 12:00 PM on December 4 [1 favorite]


You could send a big tank of water, which might be handy for later manned missions and won't go bad if it hangs out for a while.
posted by vibratory manner of working at 12:35 PM on December 4


one isn't required to have launch insurance.

Wrong. Every non-military rocket launch in the US is in fact required by law to have private insurance in an amount dictated by the FAA as a condition of the launch license based on their estimate of probable loss up to a max of US$500 million, and that is backed by federal insurance mandated by the Commercial Space Launch Act for losses in excess of the private coverage.
posted by kjs3 at 1:14 PM on December 4 [1 favorite]


a big tank of water, which might be handy for later manned missions and won't go bad if it hangs out for a while.

Au contraire, if you'll recall the answers to my question from ten years ago.
posted by Rash at 3:59 PM on December 4


You'd just want to freeze the water (it's going to anyways eventually and that would prevent sloshing).

Ok, I stand corrected on the insurance. However the point still stands. One has to insure for potential damage to the commons but not your own losses. If offered a free launch to Mars their would be many entities that would put forward a package more useful than a car and who would be willing to just assume the risk of failure to launch. SpaceX would be paying the same insurance either way.
posted by Mitheral at 7:27 PM on December 4 [1 favorite]


Anything sufficiently massive that isn't either repurposed or useless will be expensive in both time and materials to build from scratch. Is there someone with suitable hardware saying they'd like their thing on the rocket and don't care if it's lost?

And it can't be literally anything, since it has to be able to be characterized as being capable of withstanding the launch without breaking something on the rocket. In that sense, a Tesla is nearly as cheap as a lump of whatever since they presumably have access to the necessary documentation from when it was built and crash tested to be able to know whether or not it might break. I wouldn't be surprised if some parts end up being stripped. I also wouldn't be surprised if it ended up being more than just a Tesla.
posted by wierdo at 9:45 PM on December 4 [1 favorite]


A Tesla with a trunk full of space rifles.
posted by Burhanistan at 4:58 AM on December 5


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