In spite of all obstacles, including equipment age, the International Sun/Earth Explorer 3 (ISEE-3) is talking to people on Earth again. Not only is it talking, but the people sending and receiving ISEE-3’s messages are volunteers for the ISEE-3 Reboot Project instead of paid Federal Government employees. All people involved with the project are working towards a vision of using ISEE-3 once again. ISEE-3 is a satellite originally sent out by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the European Space Agency (ESA) to study the events that occur when the sun’s solar wind interacts with the Earth’s magnetic field.
The ISEE-3 mission was launched in 1978. For those people that remember and who lived in that decade, computers and communications weren’t near as sophisticated back then as they are now. Back then, Mattel’s “Football,” an electronic game using LED dashes representing the football and players, was considered pretty fancy (I was so happy to get one for my birthday). The “Speak & Spell” debuted in 1978 (how would ET ever have gotten home without one?). The Commodore PET, Apple II, and Radio Shack TRS-80 were some of the big names in computing during 1978 (a person could max out the Apple II’s RAM with 48k).
So, even if ISEE-3 was launched with more sophisticated electronics than those, the electronics weren’t likely that much more sophisticated. There apparently isn’t even a computer on board the satellite. Imagine the kind of scrounging going on today for the specialized communications equipment, and more importantly, the detailed knowledge required to operate an old spacecraft like the ISEE-3.
How do you even figure out how to “talk” to an old satellite? This post from John Malsbury’s site tells that story (hint: it gets a little technical). Of course, instead of a computer that took up a room, the volunteer engineers are using laptop computers (probably while playing Minecraft at the same time).
The upshot of it all is, as of June 3rd, 2014, the new ISEE-3 team is sending to and receiving commands from ISEE-3. The team is using the Arecibo Observatory to communicate with ISEE-3. They’ve determined all 14 of satellite’s the payloads are still working. If you’re at all curious about the original experiments each payload did, go to this site.
The ISEE-3 Reboot Project is initially planning to just move ISEE-3 into another orbit–one which is “gravitationally stable,” nearly 930,000 miles from Earth. In a way, the Reboot Project is “parking” the satellite. But to get there, a series of maneuvers need to happen, including flying past the moon at an altitude of only 50 kilometers above the surface. Which is why the communications part is really important.
Why all this activity? Simple, this way it’s mission can be “rebooted” and the ISEE-3 will be ready for the next comet chase.