Sci&Tech

Citizen scientists can take over 36-year-old satellite: NASA

This artist's concept obtained from NASA shows the International Sun-Earth Explorer, or ISEE-3, built in 1978 to study the physics of solar winds. I "AFP PHOTO HANDOUT-NASA"

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida: A group of citizen scientists can take over a 36-year-old decommissioned robotic space probe that will fly by the Earth in August, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has said.

Launched in 1978, the International Sun/Earth Explorer-3 (ISEE-3) spacecraft studied how the stream of charged particles flowing from the sun, the so-called solar wind, interacts with Earth’s magnetic field.

After completing its primary mission, the probe was given a new name, the International Comet Explorer, and new targets to study, including the famed Comet Halley as it passed by Earth in March 1986.

A third assignment to investigate powerful solar storms, known as coronal mass ejections, followed until 1997, when NASA deactivated the spacecraft.

In August, the satellite’s graveyard orbit around the sun will bring it back by Earth, a feat of physics that caught the eye of an ad hoc group of citizen scientists. Last month, the team launched a successful crowd-funding project to raise $125,000 to reboot the probe.

On Wednesday, the project received NASA’s blessings – and access to technical data to help engineers make contact.

“We have a chance to engage a new generation of citizen scientists through this creative effort to recapture the ISEE-3 spacecraft as it zips by the Earth this summer,” said John Grunsfeld, NASA’s associate administrator for science.

The NASA deal gives Skycorp Inc., a California company working with the citizen scientists, permission to attempt to contact and possibly command and control the satellite, which is believed to still have fuel and working scientific instruments.

If the effort is unsuccessful, the ISEE-3 will swing by the moon and continue to circle the sun.

NASA has never before signed an agreement to turn over a decommissioned satellite for private use.

“New data will be shared with the science community and the public, providing a unique tool for teaching students and the public about spacecraft operations and data-gathering,” NASA said.

The spacecraft must be contacted within a month or so and change its orbit no later than mid-June if it is to have a shot a new mission, the project website shows.

The maneuvers will include a flyby of the moon at an altitude of less than 50 km.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 23, 2014, on page 13.

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