Citizen scientists to give new life to old space probe

"We have a chance to engage a new generation of citizen scientists through this creative effort to recapture the ISEE-3 spacecraft," said John Grunsfeld.
By Brooks Hays  |  May 22, 2014 at 1:48 PM
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WASHINGTON, May 22 (UPI) -- The International Sun-Earth Explorer-3 -- ISEE-3 for short -- is a 35-year-old NASA space probe that's been abandoned in space. Since 1981, the year in which it last executed a mission for the American space agency, the probe has been orbiting aimlessly.

Now, a group of citizen-scientists with Skycorp, Inc., in Los Gatos, California, want to recapture the spacecraft and put it back to work. And in signing a resent agreement with the group allowing them to at least try, NASA essentially said: "Hey, why not?"

To take on the mission, the group has raised some $143,000 on the crowd-funding site RocketHub. The attempt to contact and control ISEE-3 will be more than expensive; it will be extremely challenging. Scientists at Skycorp will need to develop retro software that can talk to technology from the 1970s.

At last check, the probe's instruments were still functional, but there's no guarantee the probe will be able to communicate with Earth. Still, Skycorp engineers are trying. The group has a team currently staked out at Arecibo Observatory, in Puerto Rico, attempting to reestablish contact with ISEE-3 as it makes its closest approach to Earth in the last 30 years.

If the probe responds to the scientists' signal, the group will then attempt to control it -- which they now have permission to do thanks to the agreement signed this week with NASA.

If controllable, the scientists will have put the probe back into a stable orbit before they can attempt to inaugurate any missions.

It's a long shot, for sure, but NASA sees it at as another way to shore up cooperation between citizen scientists and the space program -- a program that's had its budget slashed in recent years.

"The intrepid ISEE-3 spacecraft was sent away from its primary mission to study the physics of the solar wind extending its mission of discovery to study two comets," said John Grunsfeld, astronaut and associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. "We have a chance to engage a new generation of citizen scientists through this creative effort to recapture the ISEE-3 spacecraft as it zips by the Earth this summer."

As part of the agreement, any new data collected by ISEE-3 with the help of Skycorp will be made public.

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