The 1970s Spacecraft is Ours Again!

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ISEE 3 is a spacecraft from the 1970s currently creeping back up on Earth orbit. NASA abandoned it, but after a crowdfunding campaign, a team of citizen-scientists visited Arecibo with homebrew-hardware and made first-contact. Communications are re-established, and everything looks good to recover the craft!

After establishing that we can hear the ISEE signal loud and clear, the next stage was to open up two-way communications by giving the spacecraft commands. At the start of this campaign, we didn't have the code, hardware, or knowledge of how to do that, but with a lot of work, your financial assistance, and a bit of luck, the team pulled together a new hardware emulator to speak to the craft in a language it understands.


Hardware amplifier in the Arecibo dish.

Communication requires a hardware amplifier installed in the dish at Arecibo. After a lot of fiddling around and even an earthquake, everything was ready.The team has been waiting since Friday last week for permission from NASA to go ahead with first contact. Every day of delay was a mounting risk, as orbital dynamics has no patience for paperwork.


Here's the full update:

The ISEE-3 Reboot Project is pleased to announce that our team has established two-way communication with the ISEE-3 spacecraft and has begun commanding it to perform specific functions. Over the coming days and weeks our team will make an assessment of the spacecraft's overall health and refine the techniques required to fire its engines and bring it back to an orbit near Earth.

First Contact with ISEE-3 was achieved at the Arecibo Radio Observatory in Puerto Rico. We would not have been able to achieve this effort without the gracious assistance provided by the entire staff at Arecibo. In addition to the staff at Arecibo, our team included simultaneous listening and analysis support by AMSAT-DL at the Bochum Observatory in Germany, the Space Science Center at Morehead State University in Kentucky, and the SETI Institute's Allen Telescope Array in California.

Of course this effort would not have been possible without the assistance of NASA and the Space Act Agreement crafted by NASA Headquarters, NASA Ames Research Center, and the System Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute (SSERVI).


So far, they've flipped modes so ISEE-3 will broadcast telemetry. They're going to leave it in that mode for a little while to gather data and get a good handle on the state of affairs before trying anything more tricky.


Telemetry for ISEE-3 on May 29, 2014.

For more updates, head to the ISEE-3 Reboot Project website, or follow their Twitter account for a dollop of science-humour in your feed:


I am so, so happy this is working out. Sure, the project still has risks, but the biggest one, getting in communication in time to alter the orbit with the available fuel, has been passed. Not only that, but this project is serving as a model for how citizen scientists can take over maintenance and control of spacecraft after NASA is done with them, possibly easing a bit of the financial burden of success.