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Private group re-establishes contact with ISEE-3 comet probe


May 30, 2014

The 35-year old spacecraft will be sent on a new comet flyby mission (Image: NASA)

The 35-year old spacecraft will be sent on a new comet flyby mission (Image: NASA)

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A 35-year old space probe has come back to life after a 16-year slumber thanks to the world's largest single-aperture radio telescope. Using the Arecibo Radio Observatory in Puerto Rico, the ISEE-3 Reboot Project has re-established contact with the mothballed ISEE-3 space probe. The private organization took control of the unmanned ex-NASA spacecraft and is commanding it to execute functions as part of an assessment of its health before returning it to exploration service.

Despite being launched by NASA on August 12, 1978 atop a Delta rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida, the effort to recontact the ISEE-3 is not a NASA project. Instead, control of the space probe, which formally belongs to the Smithsonian, was given to the private ISEE-3 Reboot Project. The Project is made out of the team behind the Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project (LOIRP), Space College, Skycorp and SpaceRef, and was funded in part by a crowdfunding campaign that wrapped up on May 18. The Project’s immediate goal is to regain control of the ISEE-3, fire its engine, and send it into a new orbit back to Earth.

ISEE-3’s main mission was to study the outermost boundaries of the Earth’s magnetosphere, make a detailed survey of the structure of the solar wind near Earth and to measure cosmic rays. Having completed its primary mission in 1982, it was temporarily renamed the International Cometary Explorer (ICE) and sent on a flyby trajectory of the comet Giacobini-Zinner and the more famous Halley’s comet before being shut down in May 1997.

The Reboot Project is currently working on determining what shape the craft is in and getting the ISEE-3 to fire its engines for a series of orbital maneuvers, including a flyby of the Moon at an altitude of less than 50 km (31 mi). The ultimate aim is sending the explorer on another comet flyby mission. According to the project team, the data recovered by the reactivated probe will be crowdsourced.

The ISEE-3 Reboot Project says that more details of the first contact will be released next week on the group’s website.

Source: ISEE-3 ReBoot Project

About the Author
David Szondy David Szondy is a freelance writer based in Monroe, Washington. An award-winning playwright, he has contributed to Charged and iQ magazine and is the author of the website Tales of Future Past. All articles by David Szondy

I wonder if it was tumbling when they found it again, re ESA article above.

If not, then we can dismiss some of the ideas as to why space junk tumbles.

Mel Tisdale

"According to the project team, the data recovered by the reactivated probe will be crowdsourced"

I'm not sure how this will work. Getting the crowd to make the results that the probe collects wouldn't be too scientific.

I suspect they might instead have meant they they will be publicly released, possibly under something similar to creative commons.

Robert Springer

Very cool David.

Bill Bennett

What a cool idea. This is the space probe that wont die.

I wonder how many others can be retasked. Hopefully the first many reactivation's.


One of the big limiters of a vehicle's service life is the amount of fuel, hence the reference to the shutdown cause. It would be great to see if this or some other vehicle can be left "parked" somewhere a near-future small bot can be sent to refuel the craft. One of the objectives of the space shuttle was to enable retrieval, or in orbit servicing. This was only tried out in a big way once when Hubble was refitted in orbit. End-of-life systems can be a great opportunity to actually try regular servicing at a pricetag far smaller than adding such a goal to coming missions. It does require including features in ongoing designs but that is part of the goal. Bigger bang at a modest incremental price increase.


We are working with various educational institutions to provide the data as a STEM education effort for practical applications in science learning using real data.

To answer Mel's question, no it was not tumbling. This spacecraft is a stable spinner. The only variations are a small nutation on a yearly basis due to solar pressure and a slight slow down in the spin rate, which we have now measured using the engineering telemetry that we have received.

Dennis Wingo
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