NASA Has a New Plan to Save Its Zombie Spaceship

A long-lost spaceship may still have some life left in it — if a California company can figure out how to talk to it.

National Journal
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Alex Brown
May 21, 2014, 2:15 p.m.

NASA has a plan to save a satel­lite long giv­en up for dead: Let the private sec­tor take care of it.

The agency’s ground­break­ing ISEE-3 satel­lite is near­ing Earth for the first time in 30 years, and while its in­stru­ments still ap­pear to work, the com­mu­nic­a­tions equip­ment used to con­trol it was scrapped years ago. The only reas­on we know it’s still work­ing is that someone for­got to send the “off” sig­nal when it was sched­uled to shut down.

ISEE-3’s sum­mer pass-by of Earth could provide the grav­ity needed to send it on an­oth­er mis­sion — oth­er­wise it will just keep sail­ing around the sun. But NASA says it can’t af­ford the re­sources needed to re-cre­ate the com­mu­nic­a­tions equip­ment it would need for such a man­euver.

Enter Sky­corp.

The Cali­for­nia com­pany lob­bied NASA to let it take a crack at talk­ing to ISEE-3. On Wed­nes­day, NASA an­nounced it will give Sky­corp a chance. The agency an­nounced it “has shared tech­nic­al data with these cit­izen sci­ent­ists to help them com­mu­nic­ate with and re­turn data from ISEE-3.”

Sky­corp be­lieves its ra­dio tele­scope is cap­able of com­mu­nic­at­ing with the satel­lite, and it wants the pub­lic’s help in do­ing a job for which NASA lacks the fund­ing. Crowd­sourcing, the com­pany says, will en­able it to com­mu­nic­ate with and con­trol ISEE-3, while in­ter­pret­ing the valu­able data it sends back.

ISEE-3 was launched in 1978, and it pi­on­eered the tech­nique of us­ing a Lag­rangi­an point (a place in Earth’s or­bit where grav­it­a­tion­al pull is nearly bal­anced) to eas­ily re­dir­ect it­self. It also made flybys of a pair of comets, and has been slowly catch­ing up to Earth in a sol­ar or­bit for the past three dec­ades.

NASA hasn’t had the trans­mit­ters to give it com­mands since 1999, but a 2008 check on its trans­mis­sions — which a sci­ent­ist for­got to shut down years earli­er — re­vealed that most of its in­stru­ments are still in good con­di­tion.

For more on the story of ISEE-3’s jour­neys, read here.