National Geographic News
Artist's concept image of ISEE-3 (ICE) spacecraft.

The ISEE-3 spacecraft (illustrated above) has been lost in space since 1997.

ILLUSTRATION BY NASA

Traci Watson

for National Geographic

Published June 19, 2014

A crew of NASA retirees, young hackers, and seasoned engineers has an audacious dream to rescue an abandoned spacecraft that has been coasting, unwanted and unloved, through the solar system since the mid-1990s.

Originally known as the International Sun-Earth Explorer-3 (ISEE-3), the ship was launched in 1978 to study the stream of charged particles flowing from the sun. NASA retired the craft in 1997 and has pretty much ignored it ever since.

But in May, fans of the zombie ship reestablished contact with it—the first time that a private group has ever controlled a spacecraft beyond Earth's orbit. On Saturday, the team, funded by nearly $160,000 from crowdsourcing, will test the spacecraft's steering jets.

If all goes well, the jets will be restarted at the end of the month and the spacecraft coaxed out of its current solar orbit into an orbit around Earth. Aerospace engineer Dennis Wingo, CEO of aerospace firm Skycorp and one of the team leaders working on the project, explains.

Why rescue a spacecraft no one seems to want?

People were saying it was going to be impossible to do. Maybe it's a character defect I have, but when someone says it's impossible to do, I look to see if it's possible. At the same time, at my company, we want to build spacecraft. This is a really good way to train my guys, to give them experience on a real mission. We do it because it's cool, too.

What accomplishments did this spacecraft rack up before NASA abandoned it?

It went almost a million miles away from Earth in the direction of the sun. Its original mission was to look at the sun and provide data to scientists so they could better predict how the sun actually functions. It was the very first spacecraft to travel really, really close to a comet. It has these big booms on it that are almost 200 feet (61 meters) across from the tip of one to the tip of the other. It's rotating really fast with these really big antennas on it. So we just think it's a really cool spacecraft.

How long has it been silent?

In 1999, NASA actually got rid of the equipment it was using to talk to the spacecraft. After that NASA had no way to turn on the telemetry and listen to what it had to say.

If NASA discarded the communications equipment, how did you manage to speak to ISEE-3?

There's a company we're working with called Ettus Research, and they have a piece of hardware that has software that emulates all of the hardware equipment NASA used to have. We put that together so we could talk to [the spacecraft] in its language and actually receive the data in its language and read what the spacecraft actually says.

What was it like to hear back from the spacecraft for the first time in some 20 years?

Awesome. It's like, "Oh my god, this thing is still alive. This is way cool."

You were at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico for this project when an earthquake hit in May. One of your colleagues tweeted, "Dennis Wingo was up in the dome [of the radio telescope] when the earthquake hit... He doesn't need any more coffee today." What was that like?

We were sitting up on top of the telescope, 450 feet (137 meters) above the ground, when all of a sudden it started vibrating. Then it got stronger, and we go, "Oh, wow." I was taking a video at the time, and I turned the video off and grabbed onto something. I just figured holding on was the best course of action to take.

Why are you trying to move the spacecraft off its current path?

If we don't, it will not be captured into Earth orbit at all. There's [also] a non-zero probability of it hitting the moon. We have to find [the spacecraft's] position, and then we'll fire the thrusters, which will put us exactly on course for the orbit above the moon that we need.

If you can put it on the right path, will it miss the moon?

Yep. We didn't start on this project until April 12, so we didn't have much time. We have the added pressure that as the spacecraft gets closer to the moon, it gets harder to change its course. So we've got to change the course in the next few weeks, because if we don't there's not enough fuel in the spacecraft to change the course.

What's next for ISEE-3 if everything goes as you hope?

What we want to do is put it in a stable Earth orbit and turn the scientific instruments back on, and use that for education. We're going to stream the data over the web live so people can use it. This isn't something that just a few scientific principal investigators will use and write papers on. This is something for everybody to access and read the data.

What could go wrong?

We have absolutely no idea if the thrusters are going to work. They haven't been fired since Ronald Reagan was president. If all the fuel's leaked out or something like that, we'll just read the telemetry until it goes by the moon and goes off into deep space again, and we'll wish it good-bye.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

10 comments
Fran V.
Fran V.

Congratulations , and i hope all the efforts will lead to the result

Carol Manka
Carol Manka

This is a stellar example of how private enterprise can undertake innovative research to achieve priceless research and long-term educational goals. Thank you!


EJames Ferdinand
EJames Ferdinand

That will be a major milestone in the recapture of of that craft....

Elana Kellogg
Elana Kellogg

What a wonderful goal.  I wish I was part of it.  I also belong to the "tribe" of people that when told something is impossible to do.  Provides a strong incentive to go and do it.

Barry Muller
Barry Muller

WOW... Look forward to this being a great success

M. Lawson
M. Lawson

This is the news I need to know. Thank you

John Willis
John Willis

This is a Better movie than the Lost in Space 1997 reboot effort.. and we're just getting to the best part.

Dwayne LaGrou
Dwayne LaGrou

I am just wondering what actually went WRONG with it in the first place. I mean it sounds like it had good communication and the thrusters were functioning the last time they tried to use them, And if you have now communicated with it again it still is working. Why did they abandon it and why didn't they do the same type of things you are doing now?

It sounds like they just stopped working it all together! And as we all know, It is VERY expensive to launch new crafts and takes VERY little money to Re-purpose old or malfunctioning crafts to do something else such as other space crafts have been assigned new assignments that take advantage of the parts that are still working.

I hope all goes well with your NEW OLD Satellite experiment.

GOOD LUCK!!!

Stephan Weinberger
Stephan Weinberger

@Dwayne LaGrou 1st reason: ISEE has no data recorder, so all measurements are transmitted live. This means that the probe blocks a DSN antenna while it takes measurements - antenna-time is precious.
2nd reason: budget cutbacks at NASA. Listening to a space probe takes time and costs money. In the late 90s NASA hat a bunch of other probes to attend to - they had to decide if the invest their tight budget into a 20 year old probe or in the newer ones (which offered much more scientific output).
3rd reason: some of ISEE's sensors were already broken or degraded in the late 80s, which meant there was even less bang for the buck.

Today the picture has changed. In the 70s, 80s and even 90s there was basically only NASA (or the CCCP) who had the means to receive the probe's data. Today private companies and even amateurs can do that.

Dwayne LaGrou
Dwayne LaGrou

Thanks for the detailed information. I completely understand what you mean. I am a licensed Ham radio operator and have communicated with the ISS and Mir before it was de-orbited. It was the most exciting part of my hobby. I was curious if it was receivable for us and what bands it was using. Back in the 70's there were fewer frequencies available to us that are widely available now with relatively cheap equipment compared to then.

Thanks Again for a very interesting article.

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