What's Up UA? - Bringing a Spacecraft Back From the Dead - The Explorer: University Of Arizona

What's Up UA? - Bringing a Spacecraft Back From the Dead

Print
Font Size:
Default font size
Larger font size

Posted: Monday, June 2, 2014 8:41 am

More than 25 years ago, an abandoned NASA spacecraft fulfilled its mission, fell silent and has since been hurtling around the sun, somewhere between the orbits of Earth and Mars. Now, a University of Arizona engineering student is trying to wake it up.

Jacob Gold, an undergraduate student majoring in aerospace engineering, is on a mission against time. If he can't make contact with the SUV-sized space probe when it swoops by the moon this summer, it will disappear into the depths of space, not to return until Gold is 50 years old.

"We hope to establish contact this week," says Gold, who traveled to NASA's Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, to join five other space enthusiasts all working toward the same goal: to breathe new life into an abandoned space probe and put it to use for science one more time.

"We have a lot to do, and not much time to do it."

Launched by NASA in 1978, the International Sun/Earth Explorer was the first man-made object placed into the so-called L1 halo orbit, which is a point in space where the gravitational forces of the Earth and the sun balance each other, dragging the spacecraft with them around the sun. The probe, known as ISEE successfully measured the interaction of the solar wind – high-energy charged particles expelled by the sun – with the Earth's magnetic field.

In 1982, NASA reassigned the probe to a mission no spacecraft had ever attempted before: to fly through the tail of a comet. Renamed ICE for International Cometary Explorer, it managed to plunge into the tail of Halley's comet and take measurements.

In 1999, budget cutbacks forced NASA to decommission the communication equipment on the spacecraft and leave it to its own devices.

Gold and his fellow team members want ISEE/ICE to resume its measurements of the solar wind lapping against the Earth's magnetosphere – the area of space around it where charged particles come under the influence of the planet's magnetic field.

In the absence of NASA funding, Gold's team, which set up its headquarters at Skycorp Inc. at Ames Research Center, raised $132,000 in acrowdfunding campaign.

"This is not an inexpensive project, and we are working on a very short timeline," Gold says. "With more money, we are more likely to succeed because we can throw more expensive hardware at it."

"NASA has been incredibly helpful with this," he adds. "As soon as we expressed interest, they gave us all the information they had on it."

"This satellite can still do science," he says. "We can put it back to work for tenth of a percent of the cost of a new mission."

Gold says the team plans to connect the probe's instruments to a Web page, so anyone can download any of the data from it.

"We think this can be a very powerful STEM education tool. High school classes could propose an experiment and track it through the course of their term. There are not many satellites that beam their data in real time to anyone who wants to use it." STEM refers to science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

But before any of this can happen, the ground crew of garage engineers has to coax the spacecraft back into its original orbit around the sun. And before they can do that, they have to wake it up.

"The first step is to talk to the satellite," Gold says. "Only then can we check its systems and its thrusters to make sure they behave the way we expect them to.

"We need to be able to speak its language, and all the programs used to make contact with the probe no longer work on anything. We have to reinvent absolutely everything."

If the probe had been built with modern technology, "we could just say, 'Tell me everything you know,' and it would just stream the data back to us,'" Gold explained. "But it doesn't work that way. It's basically a remote-controlled spaceship. Which means you have to send a command for it to give you a response."

While members of the team are busy writing computer code to communicate with the spacecraft, others are preparing the 305-meter dish of the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico to transmit the signals to contact the probe.

"We are fortunate to be able to use that telescope, but it's not easy," Gold says. "You have to keep in mind that the last person to control a satellite from the Arecibo radio telescope was a villain from a James Bond movie."

On Aug. 10, the probe will buzz the moon's surface within just over 10 miles so it can take advantage of the gravity and be flung into its new trajectory.

The team has to be able to command the spacecraft because precise burns from its thrusters will be required to steer it onto the desired orbit.

"The longer we wait, the more fuel it will take," Gold says, "and fuel is limited. Once the probe is past the moon, it's gone."

© 2014 The Explorer. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

More about

More about

Welcome to the discussion.

MOS: Monsoon Season

We asked the community about the Monsoon Season.

Wednesday 06/11/2014

What's Up UA? - UA Undergrads Conducting Microgravity Research Aboard NASA's G-Force One

Monday 06/09/2014

What's up UA? - UA to Host U.S. and Mexico Officials Exploring Collaborations in Education, Innovation, Research

Thursday 06/05/2014

What's Up UA? - New Wilderness Medicine Class Hones Patient Care Skills in Rugged Conditions

Tuesday 06/03/2014

Track Cats Send Eight Athletes to TrackTown USA

Monday 06/02/2014

What's Up UA? - Bringing a Spacecraft Back From the Dead

Friday 05/30/2014

What's Up UA? - Heart Attack Patient Defies Odds with Tailored Surgical Treatment at UA Medical Center

Thursday 05/29/2014

What's Up UA? - UA Marketing Students Win National AT&T Competition

Tuesday 05/27/2014

What's Up UA? - Scientists Discover Genetic Basis of Pest Resistance to Biotech Cotton

Friday 05/23/2014

What's up UA? - Four UA Students Picked for Pat Tillman Foundation Scholarships

Wednesday 05/21/2014

What's Up UA? - Scientists Discover Genetic Basis of Pest Resistance to Biotech Cotton

Monday 05/19/2014

What's Up UA? - UA Tunnels Get Carbon Fiber Makeover

Thursday 05/15/2014

What's Up UA? - Earning a UA Degree, in a Grandfather’s Memory

Tuesday 05/13/2014

What's Up UA? - UA's Phoenix Cancer Center is 'Topped Off,' Joins Award-Winning Medical School Building

Thursday 05/08/2014

What's Up UA? - University of Arizona to Offer Nation’s First Bachelor of Arts in Law

Monday 05/05/2014

What's Up UA? - UA Combating Health Disparities to Build Healthier Communities

Wednesday 04/30/2014

What's Up UA? - Scientists at the UA Make Critical End-Stage Liver Disease Discovery

Friday 04/25/2014

What's Up UA? - A Century-Long Track Record of Serving Arizona and Benefiting the State's Economy

Wednesday 04/23/2014

What's Up UA? - UA Opens Nation’s First Resource Center for Student Vets Studying Health Care UA Wildcat Instant Decision Days at PCC campuses April 29-May 2

Monday 04/21/2014

What's Up UA? - UA Scientists to Begin Construction on NASA Spacecraft that will Visit Asteroid in 2018

Thursday 04/10/2014

What's Up UA? - Spring Fling Celebrates 40th Anniversary With Return to UA Mall

Monday 04/07/2014

Mauga’s Walkoff Sweeps Stanford

Thursday 04/03/2014

What's Up UA? - 4-H Programs Bring Enrichment and Learning to Thousands in Arizona

Monday 03/31/2014

What's Up UA? - The Viruses You Don't Know About (Yet)

Tuesday 03/25/2014

What's Up UA? - Twice Torn Apart: A UA Alumna's Road to the Paralympic Games

Tuesday 03/18/2014

What's Up UA? - Tucson Village Farm Honored as Model Program for the Nation

Friday 03/14/2014

What's Up UA? - Several UA Graduate Programs Reach New Heights

Tuesday 03/11/2014

What's Up UA? - Olympics Interns Share Sochi Experiences

Friday 03/07/2014

What's Up UA? - Seeing Cancer Differently

Wednesday 03/05/2014

What's Up UA? - UA Offers Accelerated Bachelor's to Master’s Program in Environmental Health Sciences

Tuesday 03/04/2014

What's Up UA? - Third-Ranked Men's Basketball Heads to Corvallis to Face OSU

Friday 02/28/2014

What's Up UA? - UA College of Optical Sciences to Celebrate 50th Anniversary With Laser Fun Day

Thursday 02/27/2014

What's Up UA? - Obesity-Related Gut Bacteria Higher in People in Northern Climes

Monday 02/24/2014

Wildcats Sweep Sunday Doubleheader, Series From Alcorn State

Thursday 02/20/2014

What's Up UA? - First-Year UA Minority Student Retention Rate Highest Ever

Monday 02/17/2014

What's Up UA? - The Flu and You

Friday 02/14/2014

What's Up UA? - Miller to Add to Arizona’s USA Basketball Legacy

Wednesday 02/12/2014

What's Up UA? - $10M Gift to Optical Sciences is Largest Gift for Scholarships in UA History

Monday 02/10/2014

What's Up UA? - UA Study Shows Aggressive Management of Gunshot Wounds to Brain Significantly Increases Survival

Thursday 02/06/2014

Arizona Football Announces 2014 NLI Class

Tuesday 02/04/2014

What's Up UA? - UA Wind Quintet is Finalist in National Competition

Thursday 01/30/2014

What's Up UA? - UA Undergraduate Researcher Earns Prestigious National Award

Tuesday 01/28/2014

What's Up UA? - UA Renewed as a Tillman Foundation Partner

Thursday 01/23/2014

What's Up UA? - Thousands to Celebrate Chinese New Year at UA

Tuesday 01/21/2014

What's Up UA? - UA Mathematician Earns Presidential Early Career Award

Friday 01/17/2014

What's Up UA? - Prefer dry heat to arctic chill? Genetics might be the reason

Thursday 01/16/2014

Four Players Added to January Enrollee Group

Wednesday 01/15/2014

What's Up UA? - UA Study Shows Intensive Exercise Training Program for Dementia Patients Improves Care in Clinical Setting

Monday 01/13/2014

What's Up UA? - UA-Developed Avatar is Helping to Screen New Arrivals at Bucharest Airport

Friday 01/10/2014

What's Up UA? - The First and the Best in More Than Basketball
Spacer4px

Follow us on Facebook

Online poll