Amateur Astronomer Finds "Lost" NASA Spacecraft After More Than Ten Years

The IMAGE satellite prior to launch in 2000. NASA

Here’s a nice bit of space news for you. An amateur astronomer has found an old NASA satellite believed to be dead, and scientists are now in the process of making contact with it again.

Scott Tilley had been looking for signals from the mysterious Zuma mission, launched on a SpaceX rocket last month. But in a blog post he described how he instead picked up signals from the $150 million Imager for Magnetopause-to-Aurora Global Exploration (IMAGE) satellite.

“The odds are extremely good that it’s alive,” Patricia Reiff from Rice University in Texas, a co-investigator on the original mission, told Science.

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IMAGE was launched by NASA back on March 25, 2000, to study how Earth’s magnetosphere interacts with the solar wind. In December 2005, however, the spacecraft stopped communicating and was deemed to be lost.

Tilley, however, found that it was still transmitting. “Periodically the spacecraft will enter an eclipse and NASA surmised that this may trigger it to restart and apply power back to the communications system,” he wrote. “That appears to have happened!”

The spacecraft is in a highly elliptical orbit (HEO), one that takes it about 46,000 kilometers (29,000 miles) from Earth, before swooping down to 1,000 kilometers (620 miles). It completes an orbit about once every 14 hours.

Tilley spoke to Dr James L Burch at the Southwest Research Institute, who was the principal investigator on the mission, who said he was “very excited” about the discovery. He then alerted some of the team, who said they planned to confirm the signal.

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“NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, has acquired time on the Deep Space Network (DSN) to focus on the source and determine whether the signal is indeed IMAGE,” NASA noted in a statement.

“This process must take into consideration the vintage nature of the spacecraft, and includes locating appropriate software and commands to potentially operate the mission. We will share more information as it becomes available.”

As of today it looks like NASA is still trying to contact the spacecraft. It’s unclear what they’ll do if they do make contact, and whether it might be used for any scientific observations again. Nonethless though, it’s a pretty neat discovery from an amateur astronomer.

This isn’t the only time something like this has happened. Back in May 2014, scientists made contact with the International Sun-Earth Explorer (ISEE-3). They were able to reboot the spacecraft and even fire its thrusters, but contact was lost again in September 2014. We’ll have to wait and see what fate befalls IMAGE.

Update: NASA has confirmed the finding!

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