Ghost Ship: NASA Finds Long-Lost Spacecraft, But It Won't Follow Their Orders

Friday, 31 August 2018 - 11:18AM
Technology
NASA
Space
Friday, 31 August 2018 - 11:18AM
Ghost Ship: NASA Finds Long-Lost Spacecraft, But It Won't Follow Their Orders
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Image Credit: JPL/Caltech
NASA's no stranger to losing multi-million-dollar pieces of equipment—the Cassini satellite had its highly publicized Grand Finale (which culminated in a fiery collision with Saturn), and there's even a "satellite cemetery" in the South Pacific where they send old, decrepit satellites to die after they've outlived their usefulness. What is strange is when a spacecraft previously thought lost shows up again and starts communicating with Earth. This was the case with NASA's IMAGE satellite, which was previously announced to have undergone a critical failure, ending its mission. After being spotted by an amateur astronomer, however, it appears that IMAGE is still alive out there.

The IMAGE satellite (whose name is an acronym for "Imager for Magnetopause-to-Aurora Global Exploration") was launched in 2005 on a two-year mission to map Earth's magnetosphere. According to NASA, IMAGE "exceeded all its scientific goals and has produced a fire hose of stunning images of the previously invisible region of space in the inner magnetosphere." The mission ended up lasting 5.8 years – almost three time its projected length – but the satellite eventually stopped communicating with the NASA team assigned to watch over it. The problem was identified to have originated in the spacecraft's Solid State Power Controller, and that, it seemed, was that.

That is, until 2018, when an amateur astronomer named Scott Tilley picked up a communication from the satellite while searching for one of the Air Force's spy satellites. NASA followed up and confirmed that the signal was indeed from IMAGE. Since then, NASA has made ongoing attempts to re-establish contact with the satellite. At first, it seemed like they were making progress—they found that the satellite had a full battery, its control systems were functional, and that the craft was in overall good shape. As the months passed, however, it became harder and harder to communicate with the satellite, mostly because NASA could no longer get a 'lock' on it to confirm that it had received their signals.

Now, though the satellite is otherwise functional, NASA scientists have announced that the spacecraft has returned to 'quiet mode' and that there are problems with its downlink signal, which prevents it from follow commands like switching which antennae it uses to broadcast signals. The worst case scenario? IMAGE continues to float through space, like Major Tom in Space Oddity. Best case scenario? A group of hackers manage to take control of the satellite (like they did with ISEE-3) and crash IMAGE into Elon Musk's house as a prank.
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