The Tale of a Vintage Spacecraft That’ll Never Make it Home

By Sarah Scoles | July 10, 2014 1:26 pm
ISEE-3 before its 1978 launch. Credit: NASA

ISEE-3 before its 1978 launch. Credit: NASA

Your mission, should you choose to accept it: Find and reanimate an ailing spacecraft, prevent it from hurtling into deep space, and guide it back to stable orbit near Earth. This setup could be the plot of a cheesy computer game, but it was actually the summer plan of a team of renegade spacemen.

The group of ambitious volunteer-engineers made contact with a 1970s spacecraft, downloaded its data, and attempted to shift its trajectory homeward. They wanted to resume the craft’s mission and siphon its data back down to Earth. Their initial plan, however, failed on Wednesday when they discovered the thrusters were out of juice—but in the wake of that setback they are altering, rather than abandoning, their plans.

Rocketry Reanimation

The craft is the International Sun-Earth Explorer (for better or worse, nicknamed ISEE-3)—launched in 1978, back in the good old days when NASA actually sent metal objects into space. ISEE-3 was designed to study the barrage of protons and electrons flowing from the sun, but scientists also steered it into the tail of Comet Giacobini-Zinner in 1985. Soon after, in 1987, NASA commanded it to fire its last thrusts, putting it into a wide solar orbit that wouldn’t whip it back near Earth until this year.

Spaceflight engineer Robert Farquhar, who was on the original launch team, suggested at the time that on this 2014 approach, NASA could redirect the craft into Earth’s orbit. A space shuttle could collect it, pat it on the back, and bring it back home, where they could close out the mission and download the collective knowledge of the craft’s instruments.

Farquhar obviously couldn’t see into the future. In the real 2014, a) space shuttles live in museums, not in space, and b) NASA updated its communications system—the Deep Space Network (DSN)—15 years ago, meaning the agency now has no way to send commands to its older spacecraft. So though the DSN can detect transmissions from ISEE-3, it can’t send any to it.

A Better Future

While there’s some poetry to the idea of an antiquated craft drifting away into space, chattering radio waves and hearing nothing in return, Farquhar wanted more for ISEE-3. After finding the quiet radio pings, Farquhar learned that no one had pulled the power plug after the mission was officially over and, on top of that, some fuel was likely left in the tank. So he teamed up with a gang of engineers, software developers, and astronomy types to create the ISEE-3 Reboot Project. Two members—Keith Cowing, who runs the website NASA Watch (known for snarkily publishing internal memos and audit reports), and Dennis Wingo, the head of space engineering operation Skycorp—suggested a crowdfunding campaign.

Through the site Rockethub, the Reboot Project collected more than $160,000 in donations. Which they are making good use of: They not only had to write hardware-mimicking code that reached back in techno-time to speak ISEE-3’s language, they also—being a private project—need to pay for the time on the radio antennas that send commands and receive responses.

Making Contact with the Craft

During the first stages of the project, things were looking up. Last week, the team used the Arecibo Telescope in Puerto Rico (made famous in the James Bond movie Golden Eye and the Jodie Foster classic Contact) to command the long-lost explorer to “spin up” and send some scientific data back to them. It did both. The team pulsed the thrusters 11 times, making the spacecraft rotate end-over-end. And ISEE-3 relayed back magnetic readings from a recent solar event. Turns out, it’s been paying attention this whole time!

But on July 8, an attempted “trajectory correction maneuver” didn’t go as planned. The new, corrected trajectory was supposed take ISEE-3 out of its current orbit and bring it back toward Earth. But after just 63 pulses, ISEE-3 seemed to ignore the Reboot Project’s carefully crafted commands. The zombie spacecraft was, it appeared, out of the nitrogen that pushes the hydrazine fuel into the thrusters.

Without that push, ISEE-3 will have to stay in whatever orbit it’s currently in. Maybe it will crash into the moon on its flyby. Maybe it will just go back into space deeper than the space from whence it came. On July 11, the team will use the Deep Space Network to locate ISEE-3 and figure out where, exactly, it’s headed. But no matter what, it’s never going to fly home.

The Need for Nostalgia

All is not lost, though. ISEE-3 still will make a close pass by Earth on August 10. We can wave. And from now until approximately three months from now, Project Reboot will be able to keep the craft company, tracking it and downloading its readings. Although that’s not as cool as making it our next-door neighbor, no one would be talking to ISEE-3 at all without this project. The cosmic castaway would just wing by Earth, pinging the abyss and hoarding space-data we’d never see.

So we’re left with the question “Is it better to have tried and failed than not to have tried at all?” Cowing seems to think so. As he told SpaceNews on July 9, “We did stuff that was widely seen as impossible, improbable, and impractical. You need to focus on the absurd things that are possible.”

And it’s focused minds on the usefulness of the past. The relentless advancement of technology is good for Mars rovers and Netflix streaming speeds, but it also means we abandon still-useful gadgets. And magnetic readings from the sun are magnetic readings from the sun, whether they come from a silicon-encrusted modern craft or a disco-era one.

In resurrecting ISEE-3, we’re stopping to consider what we’ve left behind. To be sure, this nostalgia is what privately funded programs are for, and not what should motivate federal space agencies. NASA should still move forward and do things like send landers to Jupiter to see if Europa Report was accurate.

But the U.S. space program is scaled back from what it used to be. We have a collective longing for a good space triumph. Perhaps in addition to the “era of private spaceflight,” this present time is the “era of space nostalgia,” when we remember fondly how things used to be—even if we weren’t alive then. And, sometimes, when we’re feeling audacious, try to get them back.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: space exploration
  • Barry Smith

    It’s quite sad to see ISEE-3 being abandoned like this, whether we can help it or not. But maybe sentimentality is too strong. I would however be impressive to see such a craft returned to earth in the future though.

    It’s unfortunate that private industry is beginning to take control of the means of reaching space. I utterly believe that such a thing should only be undertaken by governments and collective organisations that are fully accountable for their actions and do not have profiteering as their primary goal.

    Science should always be kept as something soley to satisfy human interest, improve people’s lives and to maintain a legacy for those generations to come. I long for a collective cooperative space firm to appear – something akin to the Waitrose of the space race.

    • Rodzilla

      Considering that the government which was responsible for some of the greatest achievements in space exploration now considers war as its number one priority, it seems like the private sector is now who must “take up the torch”. Remember America’s space program being put in jeopardy due to their government disagreeing with the policy of the only method of taking humans to and from space? A private firm, driven mostly by profit, may be what we need, now.

      • Barry Smith

        A private firm will never have the best interests of people and conservation in mind. I’m not being specific to the US government. There are many other governments across the world, particularly in Europe, who are sensible, peaceful, and put an emphasis on scientific research and education. Look at Switzerland and the LHC. I heard Norway is going some neutrino experiments underground. Funded by government. India’s election system is surprisingly non-corrupt and has a large science budget.

    • MrLogic

      Well said. We have the 100 year spaceship program where people are donating their time to engineer an interstellar mission. No hardware yet, just theoretical engineering, but once the next generation of space telescopes get planet spectroscopy data showing signs of life the project should ‘take off’.

      Another point for wanting a non profit collaboration to lead the way into space is b/c private companies and profit stifle creativity through patents, industrial secrets, and the use of money ( see Dan Pinks talks on creativity and money).

    • darryl

      One could argue that private industry has always been involved from the beginning. Look at the Apollo program. NASA employed about 10 times the number of private contractors than they did actual employees (If I remember correctly, about 36,000 employees, but 370,000 private contractors). I think that NASA realized early on, if they tried to do all this on their own, the red tape would prevent anything from happening.

      I don’t see how private companies aren’t accountable, if anything they are far more accountable. It’s just bad business to send people in space when it’s an unacceptable risk. That would put a company out of buness really fast. When the government does it, they have an accountablilty report, everyone points fingers at everyone else, and they ask congress for more money so that it doesn’t happen again.
      Just sayin’

  • vg2neptune

    Or, maybe if ISEE-3 cannot be reinstalled in its L1 orbit it will instead be a catalyst for the development of a “Citizen DSN” so that amateurs can track it and retrieve useful scientific data as it continues on its solar orbit trajectory.

  • Grimbold

    I read that the ISEE-3 reboot people have been talking to propulsion experts, and are not completely convinced that the nitrogen is actually all gone. There’s a chance that the problem is gas blocking the lines. If so, it could possibly be cleared by heating the tanks and flipping the valves over and over again.

  • Diver6106

    Great try!!!

  • Tim

    Hey , I’m all For paying a little more in taxes to fund NASA and other worthwhile projects like this. The problem is ; when I agree to pay more , it WON’T GO to projects like this , it WILL go to building more weapons to supply our and OTHER governments , into the pockets of worthless legislators , and god only knows what kind of OTHER bullshit that I DON’T approve of.

    • DetailCurious

      It’s your government. Hold your legislators accountable; if necessary, vote them out and find someone better to replace them. And/or run yourself.

      Democratic governments work when people participate. Sitting on the sidelines complaining is what lets the organized elements get their way.At the moment those elements seem to prioritize paralysis and extremism over science and public welfare.

      • Tim

        Do you happen to LIVE in the US ?
        Have you seen what’s going on here and WHO’S steering the ship ? If it were easy as you say there wouldn’t be a problem. Elections are in November. And no matter Who the people vote for , I have No reason to believe that anything is going to change much for the better. “Run yourself” ? Sounds good. You just let me know how to reclaim this country from the billionaires and legislating power mongers. The only thing these people understand is FORCE. And exercising That will only get you corralled and locked up by their goon squads.

    • Michael Keener

      Welcome to freedom and liberty in the USofA….

  • Facebook User

    Did I understand that correctly, “NASA updated its communications system—the Deep Space Network (DSN)—15 years ago”. I can understand that there are newer, faster and better digital systems and ways to do things, but to unplug or overwrite a system without leaving a working backup system somewhere seems to me to be very shortsighted, after all what would it have cost to have left it in place and implement a new coms system built on new technology around it. I doubt if any of the old tech would have been of much use for anything else or that it could be re-purposed for much else in any case.
    Great that volunteers-engineers are trying to get data back from what has been collected by making the most of old technology and admirable they are trying to save some history, well done.
    Also, I would think that if there is hydrazine left in the tanks that there should also be some pressurized nitrogen left so my money would be on a blockage somewhere due to perhaps freezing, so maybe there is hope yet.

  • Michael Keener

    Obummer cut the budget and will do so again, don’t bother..

  • preciousbwallace

    Start working at home with Google! It’s by-far the best job I’ve had. Last Wednesday I got a brand new BMW since getting a check for $6474 this – 4 weeks past. I began this 8-months ago and immediately was bringing home at least $77 per hour. I work through this link, go to tech tab for work detail

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