Science that makes me smile

I’ve talked about this to so many people already that I’ve forgotten who I’ve told and who I haven’t so I’ll sum this up in as few words as possible.

In 1978 NASA launched a spacecraft to monitor the solar wind.  They did it so well that it had a lot of extra fuel on board and in 1986 it was re-used to fly through the tail of a comet.  At the end of that mission it was placed into an orbit around the sun that would have it come back to Earth in 38 years or so.  The flight director at the time said something like, “It will be past my time but maybe someone will do something with it.”

1986 + 38 = 2014 = now, but in 1999 NASA scrapped the special radios required to communicate with the spacecraft so as the popular press put it, the spacecraft was coming home but home couldn’t talk to it anymore.   Enter the “civilian scientists” who believed that the radios could be replicated in software and that the spacecraft could be captured and put back into its original orbit near the Earth.  Beginning in the spring this group of people has managed to crowd-fund an operation dubbed the ISEE-3 Reboot Project, gotten the support of a manufacturer of specialized radios, negotiated a deal with NASA allowing them to take control of the spacecraft in incremental steps, determined the exact location of the craft, and, just last week, to fire up some of the craft’s thrusters to bring its spin back up to the optimal rate.  I can barely count the number of levels that this is cool on.

Today, if all goes well, they will fire the thrusters a total of 473 times and put it into a new trajectory that will pass within 50km of the moon and end up near its old orbit.  Oh, and Mr. “It will be past my time”?  Yeah, he’s in his 80’s and he did the calculations for the new trajectory.

If you’re interested in more information on the project you can click this link to their homepage, follow #ISEEReboot on Twitter, or just read one of these articles.

One of the first stories about the ship’s return to a silent Earth – February
Front page (?) of the NY Times – June
News of the engine firing for spin-up – July

I can’t wait to see how this turns out.

 

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2 thoughts on “Science that makes me smile

  1. feingarden Post author

    Well, it didn’t end the way they wanted it to. The fuel tanks lost their pressure over the past 30 plus years and the engines appear to have fired for the last time before they could complete the maneuver. They’re working on Plan B which involves continuing to do as much science with the ship for as long as possible but it would have been so much cooler to complete the recapture maneuver.

    Reply

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