Sunday, June 01, 2014

ISEE-3 Reboot Project Connects to Satellite

          by Brian Orlotti

ISEE-3. Photo c/o Wikipedia.
On May 30th, a volunteer team of scientists, engineers and programmers reestablished contact with a 30+-year old NASA spacecraft and are now working to make it do science again.

Originally launched in 1978, the International Sun/Earth Explorer 3 (ISEE-3) was (along with two other satellites, ISEE-1 and 2) part of a joint effort between NASA and the European Space Research Organization (the predecessor of today's European Space Agency) to study the interaction between Earth's magnetic field and the solar wind.

ISEE-3 carried out its primary mission from 1978 until 1981. NASA then re-tasked the satellite with studying two comets, Comet Giacobini-Zinner in 1985 and Comet Halley in 1986 and also renamed the satellite as the International Cometary Explorer (ICE), to reflect the new role.

In 1991, NASA again changed the probe's mission and tasked the satellite to investigate, in coordination with ground-based observations and aided by NASA's Ulysses probe, the Sun's coronal mass ejections as well as cosmic rays. In 1997, NASA finally ended the ISEE-3/ ICE mission and ordered the probe shut down.

In 2008, NASA, with the help of KinetX Aerospace (an Arizona-based space systems operations firm), located ISEE-3/ ICE using the Deep Space Network after discovering that it had not been powered down after the 1999 contact. A systems check revealed that all but one of the satellite's 13 experiments were still running, and that the probe had considerable propellant remaining for maneuvering.

In light of this, NASA scientists considered reactivating the ISEE-3/ ICE on its next close approach to Earth in 2014. The idea, however, when faced with waning official NASA interest and scarce resources due to budget cuts and the ongoing costs of the ISS program, gained little traction.

But in April 2014, a new player stepped up to the table. A group calling itself the ISEE-3 Reboot Project announced its intentions to reactivate the spacecraft using a team of students, engineers and programmers led by former NASA astro-biologist (and current editor of Keith Cowing and Aerospace/Computer engineer Dennis Wingo, CEO of space systems engineering firm Skycorp Inc.

The team's goals are to reestablish contact with ISEE-3/ICE and place it in an orbit near earth so that it can do science again. The team also stated its intent to use the resurrected spacecraft as a public outreach tool, as a training exercise for the next generation of space personnel, and to show the public what small teams are capable of. To this end, the ISEE-3 Reboot Project announced that it would launch a campaign on crowd-funding site Indiegogo to raise $125,000 USD.

On May 15th , the ISEE-3 Reboot Project reached its crowd-funding goal of $125,000 USD. The team then set a "stretch goal" of $150,000 USD, which it not only met but exceeded on May 23rd  with a final total of $159,502 USD raised.

The money will be used to cover the cost of writing the software needed to communicate with the probe, searching through NASA archives for the spacecraft's technical documentation, and buying time on NASA's Deep Space Network dishes.

The ISEE-3 Reboot Project operates out of an abandoned McDonald's restaurant on the grounds of NASA's Moffett Field Research Center, affectionately dubbed "McMoon's" in honour of Cowing and Wingo's other venture, the Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project.

The team relies on volunteer labour, and a mixture of customized/donated/scavenged/purchased equipment. The team emphasizes speedy, low-cost, off-the-shelf solutions rather than the slow, large-scale proprietary approach of NASA. Although NASA has provided no funding for the project, it has provided technical assistance and encouragement. On May 21st, NASA signed a non-reimbursable space act agreement with the ISEE-3 Reboot Project, officially endorsing its efforts.

The team is racing against the clock. They have until mid-June to change the spacecraft's orbit by harnessing the Moon's gravity to draw it closer to Earth. If not, the spacecraft will remain in its current orbit, and will not approach Earth again for two centuries.

The team has already hit several technical snags. Earlier this year, they were told that the legacy transmission gear needed to communicate with the spacecraft via the NASA Deep Space Network had been decommissioned in 1999, and that replacing it would not be economical. However, project members obtained the needed hardware (a power amplifier and a modulator/demodulator) from a German supplier and dispatched a team to install it on the 305-meter dish at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico on May 19th. In addition to the Arecibo dish, the ISEE-3 Reboot team is using two other ground stations to communicate with the spacecraft; a 21-meter dish located at Kentucky's Morehead State University Space Science Center and a 20-meter dish at Bochum Observatory, Germany.

On May 29th , the ISEE-3 Reboot team successfully made contact with the probe and commanded it to switch into "engineering mode" and start broadcasting telemetry data. Over the next few weeks the team will use this data to assess the spacecraft's health and practice the techniques needed to fire its engines and bring it back to a near-Earth orbit.

Brian Orlotti.
The success of the ISEE-3 Reboot Project will be a powerful statement of the strength of small teams to obtain big results. The author, and space enthusiasts everywhere, wish them the greatest success.

Brian Orlotti is a Toronto-based IT professional and the treasurer of the Canadian Space Commerce Association (CSCA).

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