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Hobbyists Plan to Reboot NASA Spacecraft

In August 1978 NASA launched the International Sun/Earth Explorer 3 (ISEE-3) spacecraft into a heliocentric orbit. After ISEE-3 completed its original mission it was repurposed as the International Cometary Explorer (ICE) in 1982. In that role, it passed through the plasma tail of Comet Giacobini-Zinner in 1985 and flew through the tail of Comet Halley in 1986. After the encounters with comets, ISEE-3/ICE was used to investigate coronal mass ejections from the Sun as well as cosmic ray studies. The ICE mission ended in 1997 and the spacecraftwas shut down, except for its transmitter.

It was last detected by the NASA Deep Space Network in 2008. Its orbit will cause it to return to Earth-Moon space in August 2014 and a small propulsive maneuver and lunar flyby could allow ICE to be directed into an Earth-Sun L1 halo orbit and perhaps resume a science mission. Unfortunately, in February 2014 a NASA study determined that the required resources to contact the spacecraft were not available anymore and due to budgetary constraints to further contacts were planned.

If NASA wasn't interested in the satellite, could space enthusiasts, ham radio operators, private industry and universities "reboot" it and use it for science? The answer appears to be "yes!" A group consisting of Dennis Wingo, founder of the Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project and CEO of Skycorp Incorporated, and Keith Cowing, editor of multiple space and astrobiology websites, co-lead of the Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project, and Executive Director, Space College Foundation, Inc., started the ISEE-3 Reboot Project on RocketHub and so far have raised $159,602 towards their $128,000 goal.

On May 21, 2014 NASA announced it signed an with citizen scientists attempting to communicate with old spacecraft. The NASA release said: "The goal of the ISEE-3 Reboot Project is to put the spacecraft into an orbit at a gravitationally stable point between Earth and the sun known as Lagrangian 1 (L1). Once safely back in orbit, the next step would be to return the spacecraft to operations and use its instruments as they were originally designed. ISEE-3's close approach in the coming weeks provides optimal conditions to attempt communication. If communications are unsuccessful, the spacecraft will swing by the moon and continue to orbit the sun.

"NASA has shared technical data with these citizen scientists to help them communicate with and return data from ISEE-3. The contributions of any citizen science provided by the spacecraft, if it is successfully recovered, depend on the current condition of its instruments. New data resulting from the project will be shared with the science community and the public, providing a unique tool for teaching students and the public about spacecraft operations and data gathering. The data also will provide valuable information about the effects of the space environment on the 36-year old spacecraft."

The Space College ISEE-3 Reboot Project Status page has up to date information on the project, complete with graphics showing the path ISEE-3 has taken in its lifetime. ISEE-3 Mission Control is using Ettus Research Software Defined Radios. The website shows the spectrum of the signal at ISEE-3/ICE frequency of 2090.66 MHz. The group has found both transmitters (the second uses 2270.4 MHz) are operational, but are not sending telemetry.

So far, the group has only received signals from ISEE-3. They will use the 305-meter dish at the Arecibo radio-astronomy observatory in Puerto Rico to attempt the first commanding of the spacecraft. The Morehead State University Space Science Center ground station will use a 700-Watt amplifier on loan from AR RF/Microwave Instrumentation of Souderton, Pa. It’s a portable, self-contained, air-cooled, broadband, solid-state amplifier designed for applications where instantaneous bandwidth, high-gain and high-linearity are required. Dirk Fischer Electronics in Senifurt, Germany is providing an amplifier specifically built for the ISEE-3 reboot project and it is being shipped to Arecibo.

This will be an interesting project to watch! Google Creative Labs will be working with the IEEE-3 reboot team to film the first contact at Arecibo. This should happen soon as the team is at Arecibo. Joining them is Ettus engineer Balint Seeber to support the Ettus USRP 210s and the GNU Radio software that will be used to communicate with ISEE-3. The staff scientists and technicians at Arecibo are providing essential assistance. Pictures and updates are available at Space College: Recently in ISEE-3 Category. Don't forget to hit the "continue reading" link. This is the most recent update as of 5/25.

See the Telecommunications Summary by Mike Kenny for full details on the spacecraft and its communications systems.

Doug Lung is one of America's foremost authorities on broadcast RF technology. He has been with NBC since 1985 and is currently vice president of broadcast technology for NBC/Telemundo stations.