Spacecraft launched in 1978 could get new life

The International Sun-Earth Explorer 3, or ISEE-3, could get a new lease on life in August, when a team of volunteers and aerospace engineers—constituting the ISEE-3 Reboot Project—attempt to rescue it. Launched in 1978, the craft studied how solar activity affects us on Earth and encountered a comet. Those missions completed, NASA abandoned the craft in solar orbit, but left on most systems in the event the organization wanted to recover the craft.

NASA didn't, the Reboot Project volunteers did, and thought they could be successful. As recounted by Keith Cowing in the New York Times, the group raised over $150,000 using crowd-funding to attempt to recycle the craft by contacting it, firing its rockets, and return it to Earth orbit. Why? “First, because we could,” Cowing writes. “Recycling this piece of space hardware seemed cool and fun. And second, because it might generate useful scientific data—and we could take people all over the world along for the ride.”

To save money, the group established its “mission control” in an abandoned McDonald's restaurant near NASA's Ames Research Center. “Over the decades,” writes Cowing, “NASA had disposed of the hardware needed to talk to the ISEE-3, and rebuilding parts would have cost millions.” The alternative was a software-defined radio, or, as Cowing puts it in the Times, “…a computer-controlled radio that uses software to mimic the behavior of the defunct hardware.”

The group's research takes a couple of forms: searching for old documents in the basements of retired NASA engineers, and using Twitter to ask for help, which “…arrives in abundance within hours from our thousands of followers and donors.”

Cowing writes, “Even if we don’t succeed in changing the spaceship’s trajectory, we have a plan that will let us receive scientific data no matter where ISEE-3 goes, for as long as its systems hold out.” In fact, many instruments, designed to last a few years, are still working, and the solar cells are in much better condition than could have been expected.

“Government space missions are expensive,” Cowing writes. “New private-sector space ventures always seem to involve billionaires. Yet we achieved results by raising funds a few dollars at a time—and by involving our donors directly in our work.”

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