After a successful crowdfunding effort, two weeks rented at the world’s largest single-aperture telescope and an earthquake to shake things up, a private group has taken control of a vintage NASA spacecraft. After a health examination of the International Cometary Explorer (ICE), members of the private team intend to reposition and repurpose it for the second time in its history.
The spacecraft – which began its life as the International Sun/Earth Explorer 3 (ISEE-3) – was eventually abandoned by NASA and has apparently been wandering aimlessly through the heavens ever since. Team co-leader Cowing has been working from Virginia while co-leader Dennis Wingo was stationed at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. Wingo remarked that much perseverance and preparation was required to get to this extraordinary moment.
The team of programmers, engineers and citizen scientists made their first re-contact with the probe on May 29. Not long before, during testing, a 5.8-magnitude earthquake shook the telescope, closing it for a time. The ISEE-3 Reboot Project team was nevertheless ready and technically prepared to connect with and command the spacecraft as early as May 23, but a wait was required as NASA went about generating final approval. Permission was granted on May 29 and contact was established that day. Cowing reported that this first connection happened perfectly and ICE responded exactly as expected.
ICE is already heading toward Earth, but the orbit is not what is needed for any future re-purposing. The private group says that taking further control and redirecting the NASA spacecraft would best happen before mid-June, when fuel demands reportedly grow very high. The recovery plan will begin with the team instructing the space probe to get back to where it once belonged, Earth-sun Lagrange Point 1 (ES-1), 930,000 miles from Earth. This is where ISEE-3 first began its mission. The craft became the first artificial object to be placed in one of the five such “libration points” between our planet and the sun and this proved that suspension between two bodies and their gravitational fields was possible.
Launched in 1978, ISEE-3 investigated the outer boundary of Earth’s magnetosphere, examined the solar wind near Earth, looked into motions and mechanisms in plasma sheets as well as cosmic rays and solar flares. With that mission complete, thrusters were fired in 1982 and the spacecraft was pushed out of its halo orbit and on to an improvised second mission. The renamed International Cometary Explorer (ICE) flew through the tails of two comets and investigated coronal mass ejections.
NASA officially suspended contact with ICE in 1997. The new group of space investigators is now engaging with the spacecraft to determine the health of its 13 instruments and other systems, including a test of engine firings over several days. Although instructions for these tests will be transmitted from Arecibo, the controllers will be in a control center known as “McMoon’s” in Mountain View, CA. The building is an abandoned McDonald’s restaurant at NASA’s Ames Research Center.
The time on Earth before computers is quickly receding in collective memory, but this was when ISEE-3 was created and, as such, no computers on board. Communications are happening nevertheless, thanks in part to computer simulations of terrestrial equipment no longer in existence. The private group which has taken control of the NASA spacecraft continues doing all it can to once again change the craft’s destiny. Although future mission outlines have not yet been released, Skycorp, of which co-founder Dennis Wingo is CEO, has promised to make scientific data retrieved from the spacecraft open to the public and researchers.
By Gregory Baskin