A small team of former NASA engineers and volunteers have spent the past several months working to salvage a 35-year-old spacecraft decommissioned more than a decade ago. Though the project showed signs of life, the team now says it might’ve just crashed and burned.
The team was hoping to fire up the International Sun/Earth Explorer 3 (ISEE-3) probe that originally launched in 1978 and was used for several years to study solar winds and magnetic fields (including a flight through the tail of Halley’s comet in 1986). The probe was officially decommissioned in 1999.
The idea was a noble one, and the team actually raised $150,000 through a crowdsourcing campaign toward the effort, but the project was dealt a major blow this week when some of the engines failed to fire — a necessary step because, if the probe travels much farther, it’ll be in an orbit that’s even less advantageous for communication and commands.
An initial engine burn went smoothly, though Space reports a subsequent burn halted, leading the team to believe the craft might now be out of fuel. Here’s how Keith Cowing, with the ISEE-3 Reboot Project, explained it:
“Our troubleshooting today eliminated some suspected causes of propulsion system problems. We do not think any of the valves are malfunctioning. Right now we think there is a chance that the nitrogen used as a pressurant for the monopropellant hydrazine propulsion system may have been depleted. That said, we still have a number of troubleshooting options yet to be explored.”
To their credit, the team haven't given up yet, and they’re still exploring other avenues to make the project work. One contingency option being floated is to just continue using the craft as an interplanetary explorer, assuming they can’t get it fired up to remain in a near-Earth orbit.
Godspeed, little spacecraft — here’s hoping the team can figure something out.