Found in space: Defunct NASA satellite blinks back to life

Contributed by
Feb 7, 2018

Twelve years after losing contact and giving it up for lost, NASA not only has made fresh contact with an errant magnetic imaging satellite — it’s also discovered there’s still life left in what’s now a nearly two-decade-old relic of turn-of-the-century tech.

NASA had presumed the IMAGE satellite it launched all the way back in 2000 to be long lost, especially after it outlived its two-year mission objective and continued transmitting data through the end of 2005, when it “unexpectedly failed to make contact on a routine pass on Dec.18,” the agency said in a statement.

Twelve years passed. Tech evolved. The satellite’s onboard programming was eclipsed by iterations of exponentially more sophisticated hardware and software. Though losing contact was a disappointment, IMAGE already had delivered more than NASA ever had expected. 

Then, on Jan. 20, 2018, an amateur astronomer named Scott Tilley “detected an unexpected signal coming from what he later postulated was NASA’s long-lost IMAGE satellite,” according to NASA. Ten days later, the agency — “along with help from a community of IMAGE scientists and engineers — confirmed that the signal was indeed from the IMAGE spacecraft.”

That was just the beginning, though. After re-establishing contact and diagnosing the satellite, NASA discovered that IMAGE still has plenty of life — and, if engineers can successfully retro-program its pre-iPhone-era command software — plenty of usefulness.

“Current information from the IMAGE spacecraft shows that the battery is fully charged, and that overall, the satellite itself seems to be in good shape,” NASA said in a Feb. 5 update. “The next step is to attempt to turn on the science instruments — but this could take some time as the 12-year-old software to do so must be recreated. Additionally, as computers have evolved greatly in that time, work is being done to find a machine that can run the instrument commanding software.”

If NASA is successful in getting IMAGE back to a condition where it can take orders, the satellite can continue the work it was first deployed to do: documenting the Earth’s ever-shifting magnetosphere. The Imager for Magnetopause-to-Aurora Global Exploration (get it? —IMAGE) device was the first ever to deploy “neutral atom, photon and radio imaging techniques to produce large-scale, simultaneous measurements of the charged particles that exist in near-Earth space — namely in our magnetosphere,” NASA said.

The agency said that, during its extended term of service, IMAGE ended up collecting data that “led to some 40 new discoveries about Earth’s magnetosphere and plasmasphere.” The project vastly improved over previous magnetosphere research by offering scientists their first-ever opportunity to view the entire magnetosphere in snapshots that captured simultaneous phenomena throughout the system — as opposed to previous, more limited methods, which IMAGE mission scientist Thomas Moore compared to “trying to study severe storms by driving around with a rain gauge out your window.” 

For now, NASA engineers just seem happy to have their old workhorse back — even if it has grown a little long in the technological tooth. “While IMAGE’s future continues to unfold, its legacy has already proven its worth,” the agency said.