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Amateur Astronomer Finds NASA Satellite Long Given Up For Dead

Feb 1, 2018
Originally published on January 30, 2018 11:16 pm

NASA's IMAGE spacecraft spent five years studying the Earth's magnetosphere, but when its signal blinked off in 2005, the space agency called it a mission and moved on.

Twelve years later, enter amateur astronomer Scott Tilley.

Tilley was scanning the S-band frequency range looking for something altogether different — the supersecret U.S. government spy satellite known as Zuma that reportedly failed to reach orbit this month after launch from Cape Canaveral by a SpaceX Falcon 9 booster.

He didn't find Zuma, but he found another signal. An "identity scan" revealed it was something called IMAGE.

"I did a little Googling and discovered that it had been 'Lost in Space' since December 18, 2005 after just dropping off the grid suddenly," Tilley wrote in a blog post relating the discovery.

"NASA considered the spacecraft a total loss due to a design flaw that manifested while the spacecraft was in its extended mission," he wrote.

"The NASA failure review did however conclude that it was possible for the spacecraft to be revived by permitting a 'Transponder SSPC reset' after it passed through eclipse in 2007. One must assume that didn't occur in 2007 and they gave up," he wrote.

IMAGE was designed as a two-year mission when it was launched in 2000.

NASA subsequently confirmed Tilley's rediscovery of IMAGE, and this weekend the space agency and Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md., plan to separately try re-establishing contact using deep space radio antennas.

"The odds are extremely good that it's alive," Rice University space plasma physicist Patricia Reiff, who was a co-investigator on the IMAGE mission, told Science magazine.

"Right now, the team is puzzled as to why it appears the spacecraft's rotation rate has slowed, which may make communication more challenging. The team is collectively holding their breath waiting for some real information exchange between IMAGE and the ground," Reiff said.

Reiff says the satellite's capability has never been matched. "It is really invaluable for now-casting space weather and really understanding the global response of the magnetosphere to solar storms," she says.

Science writes that if IMAGE is revived, its orbit would be "well positioned to monitor Earth's northern auroral zone."

Satellites have come back from the dead before. As we reported in 2014, contact with ISEE-3, which visited comet Giacobini-Zinner in 1985, was briefly re-established years after communications went out. However, efforts to revive the craft ultimately failed.

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