Everyone But NASA Wants To Wake Up This Long-Dormant Spacecraft

Perhaps the agency's spirit is willing, but its budget is weak.

Apr 15 2014, 8:13pm
Image: NASA

Where organizations lose their interest—which is to say, funding—the crowd is there to step in. It's true if there isn't money for a Veronica Mars movie, and it's true if the Mars Rover is taking up all of the space agency's cash and attention. An old, even distinguished, NASA spacecraft is coasting toward Earth, but NASA can't afford to bring it back online. That's why a couple of guys want to take on the “geeky endeavor” of bumping it back in to place—with as many 80 year olds as they can find and a satellite dish in Kentucky.

NASA's got a full plate and a shrinking budget, which makes reviving a spacecraft that was given up on decades earlier an unlikely proposition. So in the absence of an official effort, a couple of "citizen scientists" are going to see if they can wake it up on their own. Keith Cowing and Dennis Wingo are experienced technoarcheologists; alum of the Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project, wherein they holed up in an old McDonalds and dug out some early photographs of the moon taken by orbiters 45 years earlier that had been stored on magnetic tape. So they're no strangers to old equipment, shoe-string budgets, and unexpected results, which is why they're ready and willing to see if they're able to wake up the ISEE-3.

Once upon a time, NASA was the one keeping an eye and a staff on the ISEE-3. In 1978, the space agency teamed up with the ESA and launched the third International Solar-Environment Explorer. It was the first spacecraft to monitor solar wind, while it was perched in orbit between the Sun and the Earth.

Whereas the first two ISEEs eventually reentered the Earth's atmosphere, the ISEE-3 stayed out there, and was granted a second life as the ICE: the International Cometary Explorer. As the Russians, Japanese, and the ESA were preparing to send probes to Halley's Comet as it passed in 1986, the newly christened ICE traversed the Giacobini-Zinner comet's tail in 1985, in the process becoming the first spacecraft to pass a comet, and the first to reach Comet Halley in 1986. Also, in the same process, it left its old, solar-wind monitoring position behind.

In 1997, the ICE mission operations were terminated, although the spacecraft's on-board instrumentation was still working and there was still fuel available. NASA's Deep Space Network checked in with the ISEE-3 back in 2008, and its spacecraft's transmitter remains on, but that's all that's really known at this point. It had a second life as a comet hunter, though, so why not a third?

"It's the most cost-effective spacecraft we ever had and I'd like to make it even more cost-effective. It can do more missions," said Bob Farquhar, the "orbit maestro" who originally turned the ISEE-3 into the ICE and got America to a comet before any other country.

Just like in Star Trek: The Motion Picture, the space probe is coming home. In August of this year, the ISEE-3/ICE will swing back by the Earth after nearly three decades of large, looping orbits around the Sun. Some believe that ISEE-3/ICE could be recycled again, and go back to being a solar-weather-observation platform, provided its thrusters are fired soon.

It's not that no one at the cash-strapped NASA of today believes it could be done, but reviving an old spacecraft is just not a project that can earn a line in the budget. A research scientist at the Goddard Space Flight Center, Leonard Garcia, told the Planetary Society's Emily Lakdawalla that agency's Deep Space Network didn't even bother to do a cost estimate on bringing the ISEE-3/ICE back online.

Beyond tightening its belt, with all the changes in communications technology, NASA doesn't have the right equipment to reach the ICE. So even though its signal has been detected in Germany , Puerto Rico, and Kentucky, Houston can't say hi to its old friend.

In 2010, Garcia co-authored a paper in the journal Space Weather that said bringing ICE online was a perfect example of doing more with less, which is basically NASA's MO now. “The spacecraft carries 13 plasma, high-energy particle, field, and wave sensors, most of which were still functional as of 1999,” the article stated. “ISEE 3/ICE can serve many more purposes. Controlling this comparatively simple spacecraft, now well beyond warranty, would be an ideal training opportunity for young scientists and engineers.”

It's a compelling enough mission that Garcia isn't the only one eager not to let an opportunity pass by. NPR reports that a team at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory wants to use their 18-meter satellite dish to communicate with the craft. They have NASA's blessing to try to assess ICE's condition.

But APL is another organization that has people it needs to answer to, Keith Cowing told me over the phone this morning, and truth be told, APL is perched between Baltimore and Washington DC—not the best place for signaling space. Hence the Cowing/Wingo collaboration with Morehead State.

"We've heard it, we've got a dish and now we're moving to listening and talking to it”

To free this project from budget concerns, they set up a crowdfunding page for rebooting the ISEE-3. The project has “a team of engineers, programmers, and scientists,” and Cowing told me they're tracking down everyone who was involved with the original program that's still alive.

Like the Hopkins team, they also has access to a large radio telescope fully capable of contacting ISEE-3 at Morehead State University in Kentucky. Still needs some funding though, hence the crowdfunding page that launched yesterday on Rockethub, where the difficulties ahead are outlined:

In order to interact with the spacecraft we will need to locate the original commands and then develop a software recreation of the original hardware that was used to communicate with the spacecraft. These are our two greatest challenges.

The funding we seek will be used for things we have not already obtained from volunteers. We need to initiate a crash course effort to use 'software radio' to recreate virtual versions all of the original communications hardware that no longer physically exists. We also need to cover overhead involved in operating a large dish antenna, locating and analyzing old documentation, and possibly some travel.

It's easy enough to pick up the signal from the approaching ISEE-3, but they'd have to learn the language it speaks to say anything back. “We've heard it, we've got a dish and now we're moving to listening and talking to it,” Cowing said. “We'll have to recreate the hardware in silicon—in software radio—and recreate and find the language to fire the commands.”

So, sure, a quick emulator for a program, which was written in the 70s in fortran. Even if that ends up being possible, it's unclear what still works on the spacecraft and what it could be used for. Cowing described putting it back in its position perched between Earth and the Sun, where even if its instruments weren't able to monitor the solar wind again, it could be a target for future students to uncover, or could be used to calibrate radio telescopes on Earth.

Or maybe it's just an inspiration for others. When someone tells you that something can't done, that's when you grit your teeth and get going. “Another impossible project to pull off, lets go!” Wingo wrote on his Rockethub bio.

The stakes might be low, “If it's not successful, it'll just fly by,” Cowing said, “and we'll—well, Earth—will see it in 40 years.”

But given NASA's success rate at using spacecraft beyond their mission—the Voyagers, Kepler, etc— why not try to wake up the ISEE-3 and see what its got left? Never let an opportunity, or old spacecraft, pass you by.