Citizen scientists have, with permission, taken control of a NASA spacecraft launched in 1978.
The International Sun-Earth Explorer-3 (ISEE-3), later renamed to International Cometary Explorer (ICE), was launched August 12, 1978. After successfully completing its original mission; it was then re-tasked to study the interaction between the solar wind and a cometary atmosphere.
NASA eventually lost contact with the spacecraft and officially suspended attempts at contact with ISEE-3 in 1998.
In 2008, it was discovered that it had not been switched off and most of its equipment was still functioning; powered exclusively by an upper and lower ring of 16 solar panels each; with an original collective capacity of 175 watts. The battery on the craft failed 2 years after launch; as designed.
Recently, members of Space College made two-way contact with the decades-old spacecraft as part of its crowdfunded ISEE-3 Reboot Project; which is operating out of an old McDonald’s store.
In order to interact with the spacecraft, the group needed to locate the original commands and then develop a software version of the original hardware that was used to communicate with ISEE-3.
“Over the coming days and weeks our team will make an assessment of the spacecraft’s overall health and refine the techniques required to fire its engines and bring it back to an orbit near Earth,” states the group.
This isn’t without substantial risk – there is the prospect of the craft crashing into the moon.
Once it is under full control, the group hopes to conduct a privately funded mission to fly-by a comet.
The project has certainly stirred up interest from around the world. The crowdfunding campaign had originally sought to raise $125,000; but went on to reach $159,000 by the end of the campaign on May 23.