Amateurs Bring Long Dead Satellite Back to Life

Tuesday, 08 Jul 2014 12:58 PM

By John Blosser

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A long dead NASA satellite has been brought back to life in Frankensteinian fashion – by a team of amateurs.

Termed a "zombie" satellite, the 1978-launched ISEE-3 (International Sun-Earth Explorer) was in orbit at a point called the Lagrangian 1 (L1) until 1984, according to the Daily Mail. Then it was given a new name, the International Cometary Explorer, and a new mission: to chase the tail of the comet Giacobini-Zinner and make a fly-by of Halley’s Comet in March 1986.

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As of 1987, the satellite’s engines were no longer firing, and NASA officially retired the aging, out-of-communication, out-of-control spacecraft in 1997.

However, in May, the ISEE-3 Reboot Project team — composed of amateur groups Space College, Skycorp, and SpaceRef — was able to get in touch with ISEE-3 using recreations of obsolete communication hardware that NASA discarded long ago and the Arecibo Radio Observatory in Puerto Rico. They were able to "talk" to it and bring it back to life.

With an unmistakable sense of triumph, Keith Cowing, one of the group’s lead scientists, wrote, "The ISEE-3 Reboot Project is pleased to announce that our team has established two-way communication with the ISEE-3 spacecraft and has begun commanding it to perform specific functions," according to the Mail.

Or, to put it more simply, Cowing wrote on Space College, "In other words, bullseye!"

Since then, the team has been able to "fire up" the spacecraft’s thrusters and increase its orbital spin from 19.16 revolutions per minute to 19.75 revolutions per minute, in preparation for an August window of opportunity, when they will attempt to get a gravity assist from the moon to send it back into its original orbit at L1, to continue its original mission of tracking solar winds streaming to the earth from the sun.

They’ve got one shot at it – miss the window and the satellite will disappear into space for thousands of years, according to Space News.

The team used "crowdfunding" to raise the $160,000 needed for the project on Should the satellite make it back to its L1 orbit, the team plans to command the spacecraft from Mission Control McMoons, an abandoned McDonald's restaurant at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, to continue its original mission, which likely will require more "crowdfunding."

The team will meet with NASA to present its plans for operating the satellite if they succeed in reeling it in, including the trajectory maneuver that is intended to bring the "zombie" satellite back into its orbit and put it back to work, and its eventual permanent retirement.

However, ISEE-3 is still on shaky ground – team member and space entrepreneur Dennis Wingo cautioned to Space News, "The spacecraft has taken more than five times its design radiation dose. The receiver on transponder A has problems locking to our transmitted signal."

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