How to Rescue a Long-Lost Spaceship”“in 8 Steps

ISEE-3 has been left for dead for years. Tuesday, it starts its journey home.

National Journal
Alex Brown
Add to Briefcase
See more stories about...
Alex Brown
July 8, 2014, 7:41 a.m.

In 1999, as the world was bra­cing for Y2K, NASA trashed some old trans­mit­ters it had used to talk to space­ships that were no longer in use.

But one of those space­ships for­got to die.

ISEE-3 was launched in 1978, con­duct­ing ground­break­ing mis­sions that in­cluded stud­ies of sol­ar wind and comet flybys. In 1997, it was left to sail away, 850 pounds of met­al float­ing through the junk­yard of space. But someone neg­lected to turn it off.

In 2008, NASA real­ized the poor satel­lite was circ­ling the sun, still wait­ing for or­ders from its home plan­et. But those or­ders nev­er came. Even though sci­ent­ists could listen to ISEE-3—de­term­in­ing 12 of its 13 in­stru­ments were still work­ing—they had no way of telling it what to do next. It spoke a lost lan­guage.

Next month, ISEE-3 will fi­nally come home, its first vis­it in 30 years (its slightly faster or­bit means it has done 31 laps of the Sun in the same time Earth has done 30). It would have been the per­fect chance to use the Earth’s grav­ity to send it on a new mis­sion. Every­one thought it was a lost op­por­tun­ity. ISEE-3 would miss Earth and sail right on by, float­ing farther and farther out of our reach.

Enter Sky­corp. The Cali­for­nia com­pany asked NASA to let it try to save ISEE-3. The agency had said earli­er that try­ing to re­build the ne­ces­sary trans­mit­ters wasn’t worth the in­vest­ment. With noth­ing to lose, NASA gave Sky­corp per­mis­sion to try to talk to its for­saken satel­lite.

If all goes ac­cord­ing to plan, ISEE-3 will steer with its thrusters Tues­day for the first time since Ron­ald Re­agan was in of­fice. Sky­corp hopes to steer it in­to Earth’s or­bit and again use it to take sci­entif­ic meas­ure­ments. It plans to live-share the data it col­lects with the pub­lic. Here’s how their plan has worked so far.

1. Get some money. Be­fore Sky­corp could make a bid to save the space­ship, it needed fund­ing. Thanks to satel­lite en­thu­si­asts on the In­ter­net, it was able to raise well in ex­cess of its $125,000 goal.

2. Find a part­ner. To com­mu­nic­ate with ISEE-3, Sky­corp needed trans­mit­ters that no longer ex­ist. Rather than dig­ging out old manu­als and re­build­ing the trans­mit­ters, the com­pany ap­proached Ettus Re­search. Ettus uses what’s known as soft­ware-defined ra­dio, which uses pro­cessors to rep­lic­ate the func­tions of many dif­fer­ent types of hard­ware. Ettus soft­ware “emu­lates all of the hard­ware equip­ment NASA used to have,” said Sky­corp CEO Den­nis Wingo.

3. Get per­mis­sion. On May 21, NASA gave the go-ahead for Sky­corp to try to save its satel­lite. The agency agreed to share tech­nic­al data with Sky­corp, cit­ing the com­pany’s pledge to share its find­ings with the sci­entif­ic com­munity.

4. Es­tab­lish con­tact. Just a week after NASA handed over the keys to ISEE-3, Sky­corp made con­tact with the satel­lite and began giv­ing it com­mands—the first such com­mu­nic­a­tion in 16 years.

5. Find your satel­lite. Though the gen­er­al or­bit of ISEE-3 was well-known, sci­ent­ists were deal­ing with a 20,000 mile win­dow—some parts of that range would have the satel­lite on course to crash in­to the moon. Sky­corp’s first in­struc­tions to ISEE-3 were to turn on its tele­metry.

6. Give it dir­ec­tions. On Ju­ly 2, Sky­corp fired thrusters to speed up the satel­lite’s rate of spin. The course cor­rec­tions will put ISEE-3 in a bet­ter po­s­i­tion to com­mu­nic­ate with Earth.

7. Check your in­stru­ments. Once ISEE-3 is in a bet­ter com­mu­nic­a­tion spot, Sky­corp will run tests on its 13 in­stru­ments. For now, it’s at least get­ting data from some of them. The com­pany re­por­ted on Ju­ly 1 that the mag­ne­to­met­er had de­tec­ted a re­cent sol­ar event.

8. Fly home. The real test will come Tues­day, when en­gin­eers try to change the satel­lite’s tra­ject­ory and push it back in­to Earth or­bit. Dr. Robert Far­quhar, who co­ordin­ated the ship’s comet mis­sions, is over­see­ing the dir­ec­tion shift. Only a few days re­main to try, giv­en the ISEE-3’s or­bit and thrust ca­pa­city. And no one knows if the ship has leaked fuel or the en­gines still func­tion cor­rectly. But if everything works, Sky­corp will have suc­cess­fully saved a satel­lite from dec­ades of aim­less sol­ar wan­der­ing.

What We're Following See More »
REPEATS CONTROVERSIAL CLAIM
Trump: Clinton “Doesn’t Have The Stamina” to be President
4 hours ago
DEBATE UPDATE

At the end of the debate, moderator Lester Holt asked Donald Trump if he stands by his statement that Hillary Clinton didn't have the look of a president. Trump responded by saying Holt misquoted him, instead saying that Clinton "doesn't have the stamina." Clinton responded by saying that when Trump visits 112 countries as secretary of state, he can talk to her about stamina.

WIDELY DEBUNKED CLAIM
Trump: Clinton Camp Started Birtherism
5 hours ago
DEBATE UPDATE

Donald Trump, when pressed by Lester Holt on why he finally admitted that President Obama was born in America, repeated his widely debunked claim that it was started by Hillary Clinton.

“AFRICAN AMERICANS” ARE “LIVING IN HELL”
Conversation Shifts to Race
5 hours ago
DEBATE UPDATE

Hillary Clinton went point by point on how race can so often determine the treatment that people receive, mentioning recent shootings in Tulsa and Charlotte, calling for restored trust between communities and police, and demanding criminal justice reform. Trump responded by calling for law and order and touting his endorsements from police unions. He then said that “African Americans are living in hell,” saying they are just walking down the street and getting “shot ... being decimated by crime."

JUST AS CLINTON INVITES VIEWERS TO VISIT HER SITE
During Debate, Trump Site Appears to Be Down
5 hours ago
THE LATEST

Just as Hillary Clinton was inviting debate viewers to visit her site for real-time fact checking, there appeared to be a problem with Donald Trump's own campaign website. For about a 15-minute period, a blank page or an error message appeared when we tried to load the Trump site.

INTERRUPTS CLINTON MULTIPLE TIMES
Trump Comes Out Swinging
5 hours ago
DEBATE UPDATE

Donald Trump has come out in the first segment of this debate raring to go. Trump has interrupted nearly every answer being given by Hillary Clinton, talking over her time and again. Clinton is sticking to her guns, smiling while Trump speaks and then calling on people to go to her website and see the fact checking being done.

×