Voyager 1's Back Thrusters Just Fired Up for the First Time in 37 Years

NASA/JPL-Caltech
NASA/JPL-Caltech

Imagine trying to start a car that's been sitting in a garage for decades—and the car is 13 billion miles away. That's what NASA attempted to do this week with the Voyager 1 spacecraft—and it worked.

Four of the thrusters on Voyager 1—the only human-made object ever to reach interstellar space—have been dormant since 1980, just three years after it and its twin probe, Voyager 2, were launched into the universe bearing the sights, sounds, and music of Earth on the Golden Record.

For the past 40 years, Voyager 1 has been using "attitude control thrusters" to keep the spacecraft's antenna oriented to Earth so that it can communicate with us, and us with it. The thrusters fire tiny pulses lasting for just milliseconds. For the past three years, they've been degrading, worrying the Voyager team.

Propulsion experts Carl Guernsey and Todd Barber, from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, considered different interventions and how the spacecraft might respond to them. They proposed attempting to start the four "trajectory correction maneuver," or TCM, thrusters located on the back of the spacecraft, hoping they could take over the job of correctly orienting Voyager. In the early days of the mission, these thrusters, identical in size and functionality to the attitude control thrusters, were used to keep the probe's instruments targeted on Jupiter, Saturn, and their moons as the spacecraft flew by them.

They pored over decades-old data and deciphered outdated software code to make sure they could attempt to turn on the TCM thrusters without causing damage to Voyager. Then, on Tuesday, engineers fired them up and tested their ability to orient the spacecraft, using 10-millisecond pulses. They had to wait 19 hours and 35 minutes for the data to make it to Earth, but eventually they got the good news: The TCM thrusters were up to snuff.

Now that the back thrusters are operational, Voyager 1 just got another two to three years of life, Suzanne Dodd, mission project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in a statement. The plan is to shift the orientation work to the TCM thrusters in stages beginning in January. Each requires a heater to operate, and turning on the heaters requires power, which is a strain on the aging probe. So when there's no longer enough power for them, the job will switch back to the attitude control thrusters.

The engineers will likely attempt the same move with Voyager 2 when its attitude control thrusters start to break down; currently, they're in better shape than Voyager 1's. Now in the periphery of our solar system in what's known as the heliosheath, Voyager 2 will enter interstellar space in the next few years. As the twin crafts fly deeper into the universe at more than 36,000 mph, they'll keep talking to Earth for at least a little while longer. 

This Amateur Rocketeer Builds Functioning, Miniature Replicas of SpaceX Rockets

Jeff J Mitchell, Getty Images
Jeff J Mitchell, Getty Images

Amateur rocketry is a hobby that predates NASA. Hobbyists have successfully made it to space using rockets built without the massive budgets and resources available to larger organizations. And some of these rockets do more than reach incredible heights: As Motherboard reports, Joe Barnard, a 25-year-old rocketeer from Nashville, Tennessee, is working on making model rockets capable of propulsive landings, the same trick that makes some SpaceX rockets reusable.

Most rocket boosters that propel loads past the Earth's atmosphere are designed to go only one way. In 2015, Elon Musk's space exploration company SpaceX made history when it successfully maneuvered the boosters used to launch its Falcon 9 rocket back onto the landing pad. SpaceX says its latest version of the rocket can be re-flown up to 100 times, saving the company millions of dollars per launch.

Joe Barnard is bringing this same level of innovation to the amateur rocketry world. He first became interested in aerospace engineering after watching early SpaceX videos, and instead of earning a degree in the field, he taught himself the basics. He's since made rocketry into a career, founding Barnard Propulsion Systems (BPS), a small business that sells supplies to other hobbyists, and working on rockets of his own.

Like the rockets at SpaceX, Barnard's creations use thrust vectoring—the technology that makes it possible to navigate and stabilize a rocket after launch—only on a much smaller scale. He's built miniature models of SpaceX's Falcon 9 rockets, and as is the case at SpaceX, his launches don't always run smoothly.

Barnard is still perfecting propulsive landings in amateur rockets, but for now he says each failure is a learning experience. You can watch the progress of his experiments on his YouTube channel.

[h/t Motherboard]

Ad Astra: The Time Earth Almost Got a Space Billboard

iStock
iStock

In the 1980s and well into the 1990s, everything associated with Arnold Schwarzenegger was big. Big biceps (22 inches during his bodybuilding heyday). Big box office (1991's Terminator 2: Judgment Day made $520 million worldwide, the highest-grossing movie of that year). So it was no surprise to open a newspaper in 1993 and see that Columbia Pictures was spending $500,000 to plaster the actor's name and the title of his pending summer blockbuster, Last Action Hero, on the fuselage of a NASA rocket set for launch that June. Schwarzenegger himself was scheduled to push the button that would propel the spacecraft into orbit.

The NASA project deal was being brokered for commercial advertising purposes by Space Marketing Inc., an Atlanta-based firm specializing in sponsorships and ads located outside of the atmosphere. The company's CEO, Mike Lawson, told the Los Angeles Times that he could've sold "dozens" of ads for the rocket, but that he and NASA officials didn't want it to "look like a pace car at the Indy 500."

The idea of promoting a movie in space was brazen, but not nearly as much as another, more ambitious project that Lawson was planning. If everything went according to plan, his Space Marketing would shoot a payload into space in time for the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta. Once it was in orbit, mylar tubes would inflate with gas and spring open to support a mile-wide, quarter-mile tall reflective sheet that would be visible from Earth. Lawson called it an "inflatable platform," but the press—and critics—quickly labeled it something else: a space billboard.

If Lawson had his way, it would be able to make everything from the Olympic rings to the McDonald's logo as visible to Earthbound consumers as a full moon.

 

In Robert Heinlein's 1950 novella The Man Who Sold the Moon, a lunar entrepreneur hustles to sell advertising space on the moon as part of his attempt to make colonization a profitable venture. Lawson—a onetime director of marketing for his father's publishing company in Atlanta and a fan of science fiction—read the story. In 1988, he founded Space Marketing as a way to defictionalize the concept.

As fantastic as it sounded, the idea wasn't without precedent. In 1981, telecommunications mogul Robert Lorsch made a presentation to Congress that outlined a strategy for allowing corporations to "sponsor" space travel by letting them buy plaques that would go onboard spacecraft. In the same way they endorsed the Olympics, Lorsch said, corporate America could help subsidize space travel.

A McDonald's logo is visible from space
iStock Collage

The plan was a response to then-president Ronald Reagan's plea to have the private sector assist in helping the government overcome their financial burdens. While Lorsch's proposal was prescient—it anticipated the rise of privatized space exploration—the idea of having commercial sponsors for NASA didn't make it through the Byzantine maze of Washington bureaucracy.

Lawson thought the idea could be taken further, and not necessarily with the cooperation of government. Partnering with scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Library and the University of Colorado, Lawson developed a plan to allow instruments developed by these institutions to go into orbit and collect information about the ozone layer. To underwrite the project, he would solicit commercial advertisers for the mile-long mylar sheet that would exit the atmosphere rolled up and then expand to full size once it reached orbit. The aluminized lettering would reflect the sun's rays, making whatever graphic it displayed visible for 10 minutes at a time at any given point on Earth. After roughly 20 days, it would disintegrate, leaving the sensors behind to continue collecting data for researchers.

'We could actually fly [the] Golden Arches in space," Lawson said in May 1993, referring to the ubiquitous McDonald's logo. With an estimated launch cost of $15 to $30 million, companies buying ads would cover expenses as well as contribute to a profit for Space Marketing—perhaps paying as much as $1 million for every day it was visible.

A few months later, the city of Atlanta began investigating Space Marketing's concept as a possible advertising vessel for the 1996 Olympics. "Special" glasses given away at point-of-purchase displays with cooperating sponsors would allow people to see the Olympic rings in orbit.

That last point appeared to be a concession to a growing chorus of concern over the idea of using space as a commercial entity. While proponents of the idea argued it was similar to blimps sailing overhead and displaying corporate propaganda messages, a coalition of scientists argued otherwise. Carl Sagan called it an "abomination," insisting that astronomy could soon become a practice of exploring the stars wedged between mile-wide ads for fast food and automobiles.

Consumer advocate Ralph Nader led a group calling for an orbital billboard ban, labeling it a practice of "defacing the heavens." Other groups decried it as commercial pollution of space and vowed to boycott any companies involved. Supporters of Nader's Public Interest Research Group picketed Space Marketing's Atlanta headquarters.

Lawson tried to parry the attacks in media, saying that the phrase "space billboard" was the source of the controversy. He preferred the term "environmental billboard" and said that the whole objective was to have a global company foot the bill for scientific research.

 

Conceptually, the idea of a floating Arby's logo the perceived size of the moon was too dystopian for lawmakers to handle. In 1993, Congress submitted legislation that would prohibit the Transportation Department from issuing a launch license to any company prepared to shoot a corporate image into space. (The bill was eventually signed into law by Bill Clinton in 2000.)

None of this publicity was particularly helpful to Space Marketing, which saw its Olympic plans wilt in the face of both legislative opposition and the probability of massive pushback from space advocacy groups. They turned their attention to Russia, which had no ethical objections to space endorsements, and facilitated a 1999 project that saw Pizza Hut attach its logo to the Proton rocket that carried supplies to the International Space Station. (The chain previously considered projecting its logo with lasers on the surface of the moon but abandoned the idea when they realized it would cost hundreds of millions of dollars.)

A rocket is propelled into space
iStock

Space Marketing's investors moved on to the blimp industry and the firm was dissolved by 2007, when Lawson became CEO of airship manufacturer Techsphere Systems. As for the Last Action Hero stunt: It dissolved when Columbia learned Lorsch was threatening legal action, claiming he owned a copyright on the idea of commercial space advertising. The movie itself also failed to launch, becoming a notorious summer bomb when it was pitted against Jurassic Park.

While space has largely been off-limits to such "obtrusive" advertising by law, not everyone agrees that's for the best. Earlier this month, it was reported that NASA is looking into selling off the naming right to its shuttles as a way to recoup some of the organization's costs. When Lorsch testified before a Senate subcommittee in 2004 to review his 1981 proposal, he said that his sponsorship program might have earned NASA $5 billion in revenue if it had been implemented.

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