NASA Turns over Abandoned Satellite to Citizen Group

Sunday, July 06, 2014
Mission Control for revived ISEE-3 (photo: Jeffrey Inscho)

In many families, Dad’s old commuter car becomes a newly licensed teen’s first ticket to the open road. Now, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has turned over the keys to an old satellite to a group of citizen scientists. They’ve gotten the old beast to turn over and now they’re getting ready to take it on the highway.


International Sun-Earth Explorer-3 (ISEE-3), a satellite launched in 1978 that served as a solar observatory and comet chaser, was mothballed in space by NASA in 1997. The ISEE-3 Reboot Project mounted a crowdsourcing campaign earlier this year and raised more than $150,000 to reactivate the craft and put it back into a useful orbit.


The group finally was able to get the satellite to fire its engine on July 2. The burst caused the craft to increase the speed of its revolutions from 19.16 per minute to 19.76 RPM. That will allow the satellite’s trajectory to be changed and moved to a position from which it can more easily communicate with its handlers on Earth. “All in all, a very good day,” team co-leader Keith Cowing wrote in a blog post on the project’s website.


The probe has already returned some scientific data, announcing that its magnetometer had detected a solar event, the team reported on July 1. Project members will focus on activating the satellite’s other scientific instruments before they announce what missions they will plan for the craft. Already, it is proving that projects that once required large investments can now be done more cheaply with the help of modern computing power. In the meantime, the craft is also sparking public interest in space exploration.


Project members will meet with NASA officials this week to get final permission to bring the craft into its new orbit. The group will have to prove that the craft is functional and that it has a valid scientific purpose.


And just as a teen’s first stop in his new car is often a fast-food joint, the reactivated satellite will be controlled from—where else?—an abandoned McDonald’s restaurant on the site of NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California.

-Steve Straehley


To Learn More:

ISEE-3 Propulsion System Awakens at 11th Hour (by Dan Leone, SpaceNews)

Success! Private Team Fires 36-Year-Old NASA Probe’s Engines (by Elizabeth Howell,

An Old Workhorse Satellite Spins Back Up (The Economist)

ISEE-3 Reboot Project by Space College, Skycorp, and SpaceRef (RocketHub)


Leave a comment