Researchers Receive Data From 35 Year Old Spacecraft ISEE-3

Wednesday, 21 May 2014 - 10:25AM
Wednesday, 21 May 2014 - 10:25AM
Researchers Receive Data From 35 Year Old Spacecraft ISEE-3
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A team of engineers has successfully made contact with a 35 year-old spacecraft that was once thought lost. A joint venture by NASA and the ERSO/ESA, the International Sun/Earth Explorer 3 (ISEE-3) was launched back in August of 1978 with a view to measuring how solar winds impact us here on Earth. 



However, in 1982, ISEE-3's original mission controversially came to an end when the spacecraft was repurposed and sent in pursuit of the Giacobini-Zimmer comet. The mission specialist responsible for this "spacecraft hijacking" was Robert Farquhar, a man who had been labelled the 'Master of Getting Places' for his ability to design complex orbital paths. Farquhar had been labelled a thief by those who believed there was still work to be done on ISEE-3's initial mission.


"They thought that - it was in the newspapers, even - that we stole their spacecraft," said Farquhar. "We didn't steal it; we just borrowed it for a while! That's what we tried to tell them."


In a way, Farquhar was right. Those on the original mission would indeed get the chance to see their spacecraft again, it would just take more than three decades. Now known by many as the International Cometary Explorer, the spacecraft's orbit is finally bringing it close enough to Earth to warrant communication attempts.


With the news of ISEE-3's imminent return, a private team was formed in an effort to open up communications with the spacecraft. The problem faced by the researchers was a simple one. In the decades since ISEE-3 was launched, NASA's systems have seen a widespread overhaul, and the Deep Space Network, which was the last NASA-run system able to communicate with ISEE-3 had been decommissioned in 1999. However, this spring the research team, known as the ISEE-3 Reboot, Project struck a deal with the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico that would allow them to use their systems to communicate with ISEE-3.


"Our plan is simple," said the ISEE-3 Reboot Project team. "We intend to contact the ISEE-3 spacecraft, command it to fire its engine and enter an orbit near Earth, and then resume its original mission - a mission it began in 1978. If we are successful it may also still be able to chase yet another comet. Working in collaboration with NASA we have assembled a team of engineers, programmers, and scientists - and have a large radio telescope fully capable of contacting ISEE-3. If we are successful we intend to facilitate the sharing and interpretation of all the new data ISEE-3 sends back via crowd-sourcing."


On May 19th, the team received the good news they were hoping for when they successfully received a signal from the ISEE-3 spacecraft, thus confirming that it was still functioning.


The live capture of the signal:


The ISEE-3 Reboot Project Team analyze the signal that was detected by the Arecibo Observatory's big dish.


While the successful reception of data is a huge relief to the reboot project, there was cause for concern.

"Unfortunately the signal is a little weaker than expected, and it's also odd that it fades out toward the end of this capture (it returns and fades in subsequent ones too)," said Keith Cowing. "Again, this is all very preliminary data done tonight on a rush basis. Much more detail to follow."


The ISEE-3 Reboot project is coming to the end of a successful crowd-funding project that has helped the team raise almost $130,000. This money will be put towards their continued efforts to take control of the spacecraft and eventually give it a new lease of life. For more information on the project, visit the project's crowd-funding page on Rocket Hub. There are still two days remaining for people to donate, and if you ask us, this is a very worthy cause.


To keep up to date with all the latest from the project, we recommend checking out who post behind the scenes images as well as tweets from the reboot team out in Arecibo.