Skycorp will try to awaken NASA's 1978 sleeping satellite

NASA signs a first-of-its-kind deal to let citizen scientists try to reactivate a long-retired spacecraft that's passing Earth this summer.

An artist's rendering of ISEE-3.Photo by NASA

In 1978, a then-state-of-the-art spacecraft was launched by NASA and the European Space Agency and tasked to study the solar wind -- a stream of plasma and other particles released from the sun that can reach speeds up to 500 miles per second.

The International Sun-Earth Explorer (ISEE-3) took up orbit in a belt known as the Lagrangian 1 (or L1), an area between the Earth and the sun where the pull of the two bodies on each other creates the ideal conditions for a stable orbit.

For six years it beamed back information about the solar wind using an S-band frequency (part of the microwave band of electromagnetic waves) about once every 40 minutes. Then, in 1984, it got a name change and a new mission. It was redubbed the International Cometary Explorer and sent off to gather data about two comets: Giacobini-Zinner (whose tail it passed through in 1985) and Halley, which it observed the following year.

The craft was ordered to shut down in 1997, but in 2008 the international Deep Space Network made contact with ISEE-3 and discovered that it was still operational.

Using that knowledge, along with the fact that the satellite will be passing by Earth at its closest point in almost 30 years this August, a cash-strapped NASA has signed a contract with private space-exploration company Skycorp to do what it couldn't with its own budget: attempt to revive and redirect ISEE-3.

The agreement is what's known as a Non-Reimbursable Space Act Agreement (NRSAA) and it is the first time such an arrangement has been made by NASA for a spacecraft it's no longer using, according to a statement released Wednesday. The agreement lets NASA share technical information about the satellite with Skycorp to help the company complete its mission.

And what exactly is that mission?

Skycorp plans to make contact with ISEE-3, put it back into its original orbit, and get it back to monitoring the solar wind. To fund the efforts, Skycorp raised an initial $125,000 on crowdfunding platform RocketHub and is now seeking a stretch goal of $25,000 more.

"As we developed the software, hardware, and procedures needed to contact and command the ISEE-3 spacecraft, it became clear to us that getting additional information on the precise location of the spacecraft was of great value," Dennis Wingo, Skycorp CEO, and Keith Cowing, a former NASA worker who is co-lead of the reboot project, said in an update on the fundraising page. "The best way to do that is to use NASA's DSN (Deep Space Network). Since NASA is not funding our project, we'd need to pay them for this activity. Based on the time we'd need to use the DSN, $25,000 is a very good estimate."

Skycorp has not yet reached its final goal of $150,000, but the team was in fact able to secure some time on NASA's Deep Space Network by attaching a radio unit to the Arecibo telescope in Puerto Rico and, according to a report in Motherboard, was able to connect with ISEE-3 on May 19.

As for what's next, Cowing told Motherboard's Ben Richmond: "Sending it a tone, and if the spacecraft responds with that tone, then we know at that basic level that the spacecraft can send and receive information. If we can't get that, it's game over. But after that we'll repeat that a number of times and get more complex so we make sure we have that worked out."

They'll also need to figure out how to use new tech to talk to old tech. "It has a processor, which is hardwired to do certain things," Cowing told Richmond. "It doesn't remember anything. You just tell to do a task and that's it. Your toaster is smarter than this thing."