Citizen Scientists Hope to Revive Old NASA Probe

A group of crowd-funded amateurs, students, and NASA retirees are on the cusp of resurrecting—and possibly taking control of—a disused NASA spacecraft that has been coasting around the solar system since the days of disco.

On 21 May, NASA said it would allow the group to contact the International Sun-Earth Explorer-3 (ISEE-3), which studied space weather after its launch in 1978 and went on to study two comets. NASA stopped operating the spacecraft in 1997, but through the years the plucky probe has kept broadcasting a carrier signal.

The group, called the ISEE-3 Reboot Project, is installing a radio amplifier at the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico. Sometime in the next few days, some of its members will use the powerful radio dish to try and exchange “tones” with the spacecraft. That handshake would be a first step toward regaining control of the spacecraft. In the subsequent weeks, the group would check the spacecraft’s vital signs and attempt to move it into a new orbit.

Mission control would be from an abandoned McDonald’s at NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, says Keith Cowing, a co-director of the project and the editor of the website NASA Watch. Cowing says that the project shows how there can still be value left in projects that NASA deems worthy of discarding. “They left gas in the gas tank and the keys in the ignition,” he says. NASA is not paying for any part of the project, and the group has crowd-funded its effort. By 23 May, the project had raised more than $150,000. Cowing says that the money pays for radio transmission equipment, rental time on radio telescope networks to track the spacecraft, and travel for team members.

If it all works, it will be a vindication for Robert Farquhar, the 81-year-old who was the mission’s original flight director. He has been advocating to revive ISEE-3 for years and notes that it still has plenty of fuel left. He believes that most of the spacecraft’s 13 instruments should still be working. Farquhar wants to use the remaining fuel, along with a lunar swing-by in August, to redirect the spacecraft to an encounter with comet 46P/Wirtanen in 2018. “I think there’s definite value,” he says.

Cowing says that even if the spacecraft has a hard time providing useful data, the spacecraft itself could provide useful information on how various components degrade over time in space. Regardless, Cowing cites the educational value of the project and says that the model could be applied to other NASA missions that are too expensive for the agency to operate. For instance, this month NASA said it would not extend the Spitzer Space Telescope mission, which has been making infrared observations since 2003. Cowing wonders if the volunteer approach could wring value from the telescope for less than the $16.5 million that it costs to operate Spitzer this year. “Let’s save one spacecraft at a time,” he says.

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