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
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 »
What the Current Crop of Candidates Could Learn from JFK
21 hours ago

Much has been made of David Brooks’s recent New York Times column, in which confesses to missing already the civility and humanity of Barack Obama, compared to who might take his place. In, Jeffrey Frank reminds us how critical such attributes are to foreign policy. “It’s hard to imagine Kennedy so casually referring to the leader of Russia as a gangster or a thug. For that matter, it’s hard to imagine any president comparing the Russian leader to Hitler [as] Hillary Clinton did at a private fund-raiser. … Kennedy, who always worried that miscalculation could lead to war, paid close attention to the language of diplomacy.”

Maher Weighs in on Bernie, Trump and Palin
22 hours ago

“We haven’t seen a true leftist since FDR, so many millions are coming out of the woodwork to vote for Bernie Sanders; he is the Occupy movement now come to life in the political arena.” So says Bill Maher in his Hollywood Reporter cover story (more a stream-of-consciousness riff than an essay, actually). Conservative states may never vote for a socialist in the general election, but “this stuff has never been on the table, and these voters have never been activated.” Maher saves most of his bile for Donald Trump and Sarah Palin, writing that by nominating Palin as vice president “John McCain is the one who opened the Book of the Dead and let the monsters out.” And Trump is picking up where Palin left off.