NASA Turns over Abandoned Satellite to Crowd-Funded Private Group in California

Wednesday, July 09, 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 in Mountain View, near the Navy’s former Moffett air base. 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 mission was over but the satellite wasn’t dead. The international Deep Space Network made contact with it in 2008, but NASA didn’t want to personally reanimate it.

Documentation for the satellite computer’s original software was long gone. Money is scarce and the project is not a priority. Dennis Wingo, one of the two project leaders, is a private space developer and CEO of Skycorp Inc. His offices are near what used to be the Navy’s Moffett air station, outside San Jose.

Co-leader Keith Cowling is the editor of They launched a crowdsourcing campaign for ISEE-3 Reboot Project earlier this year and have raised more than $159,000 from 2,200+ people 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 (Skycorps’ offices) on the site of NASA’s Ames Research Center.

–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)

Calling Back a Zombie Ship from the Graveyard of Space (by Kenneth Chang, New York Times)

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