Space is a treacherous and lonely place.
Hollywood knows it and has made big bucks with hits like Apollo 13 and Gravity. Cult science-enthusiasts look toward Moon and Sunshine for their space kicks. But all of these dramas only focus on humans in space and their experiences with solitude. What about the happy little satellites who get lost in space? Doesn’t anyone care about them? Finally someone does. A group of civilian astronomy enthusiasts just signed a deal with NASA allowing them to talk to a long lost satellite that has been abandoned for over 30 years. It’s called the ISEE-3 Reboot.
In 1978, NASA launched the ISEE program. This International Sun-Earth Explorer initiative was comprised of three satellites, predictably named ISEE-1, ISEE-2, and ISEE-3. Their mission was to study how the sun’s solar wind affected the magnetosphere. ISEE-1 and ISEE-2 re-entered Earth’s atmosphere as planned, but the adventurous ISEE-3 had a different fate.
Not unlike Arya Stark, ISEE-3 was given a new identity and a new mission, traveling far from home to study comets, adopting the new moniker ICE. As the International Cometary Explorer, it was the first spacecraft to fly through a comet’s tail.
While NASA kept up with fast-flying ICE through the ’90’s and even briefly pinging it in 2008, it largely fell off the metaphorical and literal radar. This was in part due to its crazy trajectory; it orbits the sun a little faster than earth and at a slightly different angle, eventually straying far, far away from home.
Thanks to the laws of physics, this August it’s buzzing past Earth again for a reunion. Instead of blending back into obscurity after its brief moment in the earthshine, ICE is rediscovering its true identify as ISEE-3 through a dedicated team of citizen scientists. Comprised of Space College, Skycorp, and SpaceRef, they are a group of amateur and professional astronomers who are hacking together a way to talk to ISEE-3 and return it to its original trajectory around Earth.
Imagine trying to make a VCR play a Blu-Ray disc. That’s metaphorically the challenge with ISEE-3 Reboot. While communicating with the 30 year old space craft is relatively trivial, it requires an immense effort to simulate the technological conditions of 1978 in a virtual manner. ISEE-3 needs to think it’s talking to data telemetry tapes used by some of the very first computers, now completely obsolete.
While they believe they are ready to make first-contact with ISEE-3, they found that the wayward satellite has strayed differently than expected, putting it on a collision course with the moon. This was discovered thanks to efforts at Arecibo, the huge telescope in Puerto Rico. You probably know it from the movie Contact. This realization made the project more critical as a failure would lead to the demise of poor ISEE-3.
If everything goes smoothly, the group hopes to contact ISEE-3 soon and give it commands to enter a Lagrangian 1 orbit, which would leave it safely orbiting Earth forever, never entering the atmosphere nor wandering away.
While this effort has been ongoing, the ISEE-3 Reboot project just achieved two important milestones. Firstly, their crowd-funded budget far surpassed its goal of $125,000. Secondly, NASA signed a contract with the group, officially allowing them access to the abandoned satellite. It’s the first contract of this nature that NASA has ever signed, and marks an exciting precedent for other Citizen Science projects.
So what’s next? The team hopes to establish contact with ISEE-3 this summer. The spacecraft is powered by solar panels and the instrumentation is believed to be working. In fact, since it’s been in a 0G, cryogenic sleep for decades, it probably works great! If the team is successful in changing the satellite’s trajectory to capture it in a safe Lagrangian 1 orbit, the possibilities are endless. The spacecraft could go on gathering data as it was always intended, or its instrumentation could be leveraged for an entirely new goal.
Even if the team fails and we lose ISEE-3, it’s an exciting step toward how Citizen Science can hopefully start influencing industries that have long been considered obtuse and immutable. Follow the team’s progress on Twitter at @ISEE3Reboot and here on GEEK!