Amateur discovers long-dead NASA satellite has come back to life


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Back from the dead: In his hunt to locate Zuma an amateur astronomer has discovered that a long-dead NASA satellite, designed to study the magnetosphere, has come back to life.

IMAGE went dead in 2005, and though NASA thought it might come back to life after experiencing a total eclipse in 2007 that would force a reboot, no evidence of life was seen then. It now appears that the satellite came to life sometime between then and 2018, and was chattering away at Earth waiting for a response. NASA is now looking at what it must do to take control of the spacecraft and resume science operations.

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14 comments

  • Orion314

    I wish our POTUS could MNGA…
    MakeNasaGreatAgain!
    what the hell? an amateur figures this out? , but NASA? Don’t worry , We got this SLS business nailed down. Billions/decades later…not a thing to show for it..

  • Edward

    Orion314 wrote: “an amateur figures this out? , but NASA?

    For the same reason that it is amateurs who find most comets, not NASA or other science organizations, that an amateur found this back-from-the-dead satellite. After NASA gives up on one of its satellites, it spends its precious resources on other projects.

    I know that the great amount spent on SLS makes it seem as though NASA has a bottomless pit of money to spend, but (unlike the various welfare programs) Congress allocates a limited supply and specifies how it is to be spent. A lot has been specified for Orion-SLS, little for finding things like comets, and none for listening for or reviving dead satellites (what is the point?).

    With the research team off the project for a decade and a half, I wonder whether NASA will do much with IMAGE now. I’m sure that they will want to identify why it went silent so that we can design better satellites in the future.

  • Jim Jakoubek

    NASA is a relic of glories long past.

    In the early days, it was created as a matter of politics because of the Cold War. This makes sense when taken in
    the historical context. However, once the goal was reached, who cared anymore? This is the story of our Manned
    Program.

    We are past that. Space is the future of the human race but it will not be the government that will take us there.

    Mars by 2030? The government doing this? 2030 is only 12 years away and NASA can not get people into Low Earth
    Orbit, much less The Moon or Mars and there is really no incentive to do so which is why NASA budgets are always
    on the chopping block.

    What I would like to see is NASA doing what it does best. Send out unmanned probes, gain knowledge of our solar
    system and leave the heavy lifting to the private sector to use said knowledge to get people into space so they can
    live and work there.

    Anything else is a waste IMHO.

  • Edward

    Jim Jakoubek wrote: “What I would like to see is NASA doing what it does best. Send out unmanned probes, gain knowledge of our solar system and leave the heavy lifting to the private sector to use said knowledge to get people into space so they can live and work there.

    Sending out probes is one of NASA’s strengths. Other strengths are manned flight (space and aviation — the little “a” in National Aeronautics and Space Agency) and innovation.

    NASA came from the NACA, National Advisory Committee for Aviation, and making better airplanes is still one of NASA’s charters.

    NASA has explored launch and reentry of manned spacecraft and has fairly thoroughly explored low Earth orbit.

    In order to explore space with lightweight structures and equipment, NASA caused the development of various innovations that had previously been only interesting science experiments, such as semiconductor based electronics (e.g. computers) and photo-voltaic panels, and various alloys and materials were developed for NASA.

    I agree that it is well past time for NASA to get back to its own basics, pushing the edge of the envelope, as Tom Wolfe phrased it in his book “The Right Stuff.” It was this kind of innovation and rising to the challenges that made NASA the respected government organization in the 1960s.

    A basic function of NASA — just as it was for the NACA — is to pave the way for commercial companies. This was not happening, and in the 1990s there were people who started up some commercial companies intended to fill gaps that NASA had left open. Dr. Alan Binder’s Lunar Prospector was one such attempt. Armadillo and Kistler were two others. VentureStar, Delta Clipper, and Roton were three more attempts. NASA was not a great help for these commercial endeavors.

    It was not until President Bush created the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program that NASA began to fulfill this basic function, allowing and encouraging commercial companies to perform space activities that were previously performed by NASA and other governments. The COTS program was organized very differently than any of the attempts of the 1990s, and it has proved to work better.

    The problem, as I see it, is Congress, which lacks the imagination, courage, and selflessness to put NASA’s skilled, talented, and eager scientists, engineers, and technicians to their full potentials. Instead of the world’s best science and engineering tool, NASA is now largely a political tool for getting selfish politicians reelected, and Congress does not like the public reaction when anything goes awry or anyone gets hurt, so they play it safe. Any science and engineering that happens to come out of NASA is despite Congress, not because of it.

  • wayne

    Jim/Edward-
    Interesting back-n-forth.

    Going off thread—- I’d be interested in your thoughts on this

    James Burke
    “The other side of the moon” 1979
    https://youtu.be/puWbQ1b-ljU
    57:19

    (tangentially– CAPTCHA is making me work like a lab-rat this morning; lots of “street signs” and “roads.”)

  • Andi

    Edward –

    “National Aeronautics and Space Agency”

    a small item – it’s “National Aeronautics and Space Administration”

    My father was there from the start in 1958

  • Edward

    Andi,
    Yup, you are correct. I keep getting that wrong, because it is considered an agency, but the name is Administration. Please do not ask me the difference between an agency and an administration; I keep asking people the difference, and no one else seems to know, either.

    wayne,
    I will have to comment on that video later, as I am pressed for time, today.

  • Edward

    wayne,
    It was not until I watched the opening sequence a second time that I realized what you were asking for. James Burke says, “I had always thought that Apollo was a great adventure story, but not until now have I been able to appreciate in detail the other side of it.” Adding this to his opening lines, we can see why we thought that NASA made space travel look easy: “In spite of what had seemed a flawless landing [of Apollo 11], the tension here was difficult to describe … over in Houston the flight controllers were just recovering from one of the most hair raising experiences they’d ever had. None of us in the news media knew how close that landing had come to disaster, because we hadn’t been told.

    Most or all of what I saw in that video I had already known, but that is because I have closely followed the US space program for decades, and over the years various sources had revealed them. However, this film would be an eye opener for most people who do not follow the world’s space programs. Few knew that there were forty to fifty major failures on every Apollo flight, including the last one, and that is a new number for me; with two exceptions, Apollo seemed to work flawlessly, as Burke said. No wonder the astronauts and their ground control teams were so heavily tested on problem solving, prior to missions. They had come to realize that a lot of things can go wrong during a flight, and solutions would have to be found, or else the mission would be aborted. This is also why the movie “Apollo 13” showed that it took so long for them to realize that the ship was in such desperate trouble, everyone was in problem solving mode in order to save the mission, and it took them a while to suss out the extent of the problem.

    The film shows some of how difficult it is to go into space. There are technical difficulties, safety difficulties, and even political difficulties. Also, danger lurks where our imaginations fail to go. One of the astronauts in the series “From The Earth To The Moon” said that the reason for the Apollo 1 fire was because of a failure of imagination, that we didn’t imagine such a problem occurring. This is probably also the root cause of the VSS Enterprise accident (Virgin Galactic’s first SpaceShipTwo).

    Burke points out that the scientific community at large was against manned spaceflight, and I found that to be the case in the 1980s, when I got into making scientific instruments for satellites. The general feeling was that manned spaceflight was draining money that would have gone to unmanned probes and satellites. Although this may still be the case, I believe that without a manned space program to inspire our imaginations and enthusiasms, there would be far less unmanned exploration of the solar system. After all, we are sending probes to Mars and other places where we imagine and hope that we will one day send people.

    Burke points out that President Eisenhower did not realize that we were in a space race, racing to be the first to put an artificial satellite into orbit. This is true. All Eisenhower truly cared about was the precedence that it was acceptable to fly satellites over other countries. He had a problem getting information about the Soviet Union, and he believed that a satellite with a camera could replace aircraft with cameras; the problem was that airplanes were getting shot down — even before Gary Powers’ U2. Eisenhower was adamant that the first US satellite be scientific, not military, and ordered that Wallops would place nothing “accidentally” in orbit. Wallops was testing reentry bodies and heat shielding materials, and they could have easily pointed the top stage in the wrong direction and place something into orbit. Eisenhower feared that the Soviets would complain about the overflight, as though it were an airplane, because at that time there was no upper limit to a country’s airspace, but Sputnik provided the opportunity to define one. A nice book that talks about this and the first US spy satellite is “Secret Empire” by Philip Taubman.

    I like Burke’s conclusions that Apollo brought us higher reliability than before and a perspective of our part in this universe. We had worked hard to create techniques for guaranteeing great reliability, which are used today for our high tech items, where microscopic flaws can create large problems. “Zero defect engineering, reliability demonstration tests, systems analysis. They’re abstract concepts but they affect our lives much more profoundly than Teflon frying pans or pacemakers.

    I have enjoyed all the James Burke films that I have seen, and that goes for this film, too.

  • wayne

    Edward-
    Interesting stuff!

    Highly recommend this one as well.
    James Burke –
    “The men who walked on the moon”
    BBC1 (1979)
    https://youtu.be/rWZupDRI0ss
    (1:14:38)

  • Edward

    wayne,
    Thanks for that one, too.

    If you get the time, another more recent film is “In the Shadow of the Moon”
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xDMI4qNzzuU (1-3/4 hours)

  • wayne

    Edward–
    The wrong movie is up at that link, but yes, thank you– that is a good one & I haven’t seen it recently, and it’s definitely worth a repeat view.

    Highly recommend (all) the “Apollo 13, BBC coverage” reentry & splashdown footage clips, Part 2 is at:
    https://youtu.be/Xiw38xF4fq0
    (8:03)
    Mixture of live reporting and background clips, makes the US Media coverage look sick. (and I was a Jules Bergman/ABC news guy, mainly because that channel came in the best at the time.)

  • Edward

    This is the IMDb page for the film “In the Shadow of the Moon”:
    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0925248/?ref_=nv_sr_3

    Storyline
    In the 1960s, US President John F Kennedy proposed landing a man on the moon before the decade was finished. This film has interviews with most of the surviving astronauts of the Apollo program who were making ready to make that great voyage with an army of experts determined to make the endeavor possible. Through training, tragedy and triumph, we follow the greatest moments of one of Humanity’s great achievements.

  • wayne

    Edward–
    Good deal!

  • Edward

    Here is a brief update on the effort to capture, decode, and analyze IMAGE signal data:
    https://www.ecnmag.com/blog/2018/01/nasa-reconnects-lost-image-satellite?et_cid=6249110&et_rid=535390529&type=cta&et_cid=6249110&et_rid=535390529&linkid=Featured+CTA

    The IMAGE Mission Operation Center’s hardware and operating systems no longer exist. In addition, many versions of the satellite’s supplementary software have undergone several updates since its launch, which complicates the reverse-engineering process.

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