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Space Communications

NASA Forgets How To Talk To ICE/ISEE-3 Spacecraft 166

Hugh Pickens DOT Com writes "Randall Munroe's XKCD cartoon on the ICE/ISEE-3 spacecraft inspired me to do a little research on why Nasa can no long communicate with the International Cometary Explorer. Launched in 1978 ISEE-3 was the first spacecraft to be placed in a halo orbit at one of Earth-Sun Lagrangian points (L1). It was later (as ICE) sent to visit Comet Giacobini-Zinner and became the first spacecraft to do so by flying through a comet's tail passing the nucleus at a distance of approximately 7800 km. ICE has been in a heliocentric orbit since then, traveling just slightly faster than Earth and it's finally catching up to us from behind, and will return to Earth in August. According to Emily Lakdawalla, it's still functioning, broadcasting a carrier signal that the Deep Space Network successfully detected in 2008 and twelve of its 13 instruments were working when we last checked on its condition, sometime prior to 1999.

Can we tell the spacecraft to turn back on its thrusters and science instruments after decades of silence and perform the intricate ballet needed to send it back to where it can again monitor the Sun? Unfortunately the answer to that question appears to be no. 'The transmitters of the Deep Space Network, the hardware to send signals out to the fleet of NASA spacecraft in deep space, no longer includes the equipment needed to talk to ISEE-3. These old-fashioned transmitters were removed in 1999.' Could new transmitters be built? Yes, but it would be at a price no one is willing to spend. 'So ISEE-3 will pass by us, ready to talk with us, but in the 30 years since it departed Earth we've lost the ability to speak its language,' concludes Lakdawalla. 'I wonder if ham radio operators will be able to pick up its carrier signal — it's meaningless, I guess, but it feels like an honorable thing to do, a kind of salute to the venerable ship as it passes by.'"
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NASA Forgets How To Talk To ICE/ISEE-3 Spacecraft

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  • Why so expensive? (Score:5, Informative)

    by X0563511 ( 793323 ) on Tuesday March 04, 2014 @09:07AM (#46395473) Homepage Journal

    SDR is a thing, and it's not that expensive these days.

    The expensive part would be the amplifiers and antennas, and those just spew the signal you feed to them. Generating the signal is cheap.

    • by Joce640k ( 829181 ) on Tuesday March 04, 2014 @09:25AM (#46395571) Homepage

      I suspect the point of the cartoon was a thing called "crowdfunding"

      (And to draw attention to the approaching window for actually doing something...)

    • Re:Why so expensive? (Score:5, Informative)

      by Noryungi ( 70322 ) on Tuesday March 04, 2014 @09:56AM (#46395721) Homepage Journal

      The HAM are already on it, bless their souls: []

      If they can make it (meaning: at the very least being able to get the carrier), it will be a hack of historic proportions.

    • Re:Why so expensive? (Score:4, Interesting)

      by yesterdaystomorrow ( 1766850 ) on Tuesday March 04, 2014 @09:58AM (#46395743)

      Here's how it works.

      In the NASA system, the first thing any project needs is a cost estimate from the bean counters. They employ a vast amount of historical data to estimate costs. To get project approval, you must promise to spend that much money: if you don't, NASA management will assume you don't understand the difficulty, and will fail. Then, of course, you must actually build a project organization with a staff capable of spending the money.

      This can go wrong rather badly. If the project is actually a lot easier than the bean counters assumed, you have now set yourself up for a massive overrun. Squander is harder to manage than lean development. But when you overrun, the data is duly entered in the bean counters' database, and the next similar project has to come up with even more money.

      Communications may be the area where costing is the farthest from the real state of the art.

      • by bigpat ( 158134 )

        There are also procedures for surplussing government property. And other ways that someone at NASA could spend a few hours, put together an RFP for some University, non-profit or other outside entity to put together a mission plan to reestablish communications, control and make some use of the space craft. Maybe it is really just redundant given much better instruments on other probes, but there is still likely some value that some University researchers could utilize. Heck sounds like it could be a pret

    • Re:Why so expensive? (Score:4, Interesting)

      by Baloroth ( 2370816 ) on Tuesday March 04, 2014 @12:01PM (#46396891)

      SDR is a thing, and it's not that expensive these days.

      The expensive part would be the amplifiers and antennas, and those just spew the signal you feed to them. Generating the signal is cheap.

      I suspect the issue is more "why?" Why would they bother spending even a few thousand dollars on a satellite that was supposed to have been shut down 15 years ago and for which they (quite clearly) have no more use? And it would cost money, if only the time they spend using the amplifiers/antennas. Considering that the DSN communications system already has to support multiple missions, adding one extra that serves no useful function is a complete waste of resources.

    • Yes, can someone explain WHY this is so expensive? It is distinctly possible that there is something I don't know about, but an SDR system under 2k. I'm sure it isn't the dish. Does it need some kind of insane amp that nobody has anymore and we can't rebuild? I can accept there is a reason it is expensive and that I don't know about, but I haven't seen an explanation yet. Hell, if there was a reasonable plan to build a system to talk to the spacecraft, I'd put in a few thousand to talk to talk to the spa
      • I really can't think of a technical reason - the only things that come to mind are political in nature (eg protocol licensing) or other such BS.

        HAMs bounce signals off of the freakin' moon's surface with only a few hundred dollars worth of equipment. The only way "expensive" comes in here is if there's some hairbrained software patent in the way?

      • Re:Why so expensive? (Score:4, Interesting)

        by porcinist ( 1847634 ) on Tuesday March 04, 2014 @02:22PM (#46398733)
        I'm willing to put my money where my mouth is. I'll put in 5k if someone can come up with a reasonable plan to talk with this spacecraft. You can find my contact info on my website [] Email me if you have a detailed (hardware, software work) plan, or you want to up the bounty...
  • by Anonymous Coward

    Someday voyager 6 will destroy us

  • 1337 issue (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday March 04, 2014 @09:17AM (#46395521)

    Did anyone else notice the XKCD issue's number is 1337?

  • by avgjoe62 ( 558860 ) on Tuesday March 04, 2014 @09:22AM (#46395551)

    Like in any relationship, thing are always changing. One partner moves a little further away, the other becomes disinterested and soon one of them just doesn't understand the other.

    I would suggest couple's therapy.

    • Kind of like the Slashdot staff and the "Most Discussed" sidebar. Anybody notice that it hasn't changed in a week?
      • by Elbelow ( 176227 )

        Kind of like the Slashdot staff and the "Most Discussed" sidebar. Anybody notice that it hasn't changed in a week?

        As far as I can tell, none of the slashboxes has updated in two weeks. Must be a beta thing.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday March 04, 2014 @09:37AM (#46395617)

    It invokes in me a strange emotion to ponder the fact that there are now potential targets of archaeology in "deep space" and that those archaeological artifacts are older than I am.

  • did you see that the XKCD referred in the summary is 1337? Elite in leetspeak []. My bet is it's not coincidence at all.

    • by Noryungi ( 70322 )

      I believe it is a coincidence, but Randall milked it for all it is worth. Obligatory reference to Hackers and all.

      The amazing thing is that he has been able to weave this into a funny cartoon about a real thing.

  • ...and shoot it down.

  • by repetty ( 260322 )

    The answer to this is obvious: Contract with a HAM radio club or some group associated with the American Radio Relay League to do it.

  • Why not publish many of the specifications so that hackers can cobble together a mission control and then make something happen? I suspect that if you put out an application that you would get 1,000,000 engineers who would drop what they are doing to help out for free. Literally you would get 1,000,000 engineers.
    • If there's any kind of "little black box" on that vehicle that uses any kind of "secure" communication protocols, even from 30 years ago, the time and effort required to publish a functional, redacted communication protocol will cost far more than the balance of the mission calculations, communication hardware, etc.

    • by bigpat ( 158134 )

      As much as I agree with the idea of open sourcing it...NASA would need to limit this to just one team and one mission. Otherwise you get multiple different teams sending commands to a satellite which would confuse the heck out of it.

      If NASA can't do something with the satellite, then it should just hand the keys off to a University or other non-profit that has a shot to pull something together by August.

    • I think a million is being grossly overoptimistic. Maybe several thousand.

      For comparison, there were 1,316 kernel devs involved in Linux 3.2. []

      • I was mentally including the engineering types such as ham radio nuts who, might not have a degree, have serious skills in antennas and whatnot.
    • From what I read of the article (last month, thanks slashdot), the frequencies it uses are in very restricted bands and would require a very expensive government license to even be allowed to broadcast.
  • by dtmos ( 447842 ) * on Tuesday March 04, 2014 @10:30AM (#46395959)

    Is it the entire 2 GHz transmitter that is missing? Just the power amplifier? Just the PCM modulator? The feed for the 70m dish?

    What, exactly, is missing?

    • What's missing is a filter in the receiver circuits [].
      You've got a transmitter and a receiver connected to the same antenna. When you're using the (powerful) transmitter, you need to make sure its signals don't end up in the (very sensitive) receiver and fry it.
      This filter has to provide something like 150 dB of isolation.

  • Fortunately there is a solution. Software defined radio. If that were to deployed SDR as part of the communications network we would be able to talk to old equipment.
  • by troon ( 724114 ) on Tuesday March 04, 2014 @10:43AM (#46396083) []

    Oh, wait...

  • by slashmydots ( 2189826 ) on Tuesday March 04, 2014 @10:52AM (#46396191)
    Just wait until the prove discovers that not only did communication stop for no reason but the planet was taken over my talking apes!
  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday March 04, 2014 @10:54AM (#46396211)

    So we can't communicate with our own spacecraft, but we think we'll be able to talk to aliens?

  • What fazed me is ðey never even estimated ðe costs

  • by tomhath ( 637240 ) on Tuesday March 04, 2014 @11:51AM (#46396759)
    It's nice that the spacecraft is still functioning after all these years. But given the orbit it's in and the antiquated instruments it has on board, is there really any reason to establish communication with it? NASA seems to consider it another piece of space junk.
    • by pz ( 113803 )

      The cost of launching anything is staggering, and it gets more stupendously staggering with the size of the orbit. Each probe is important. We are nowhere near having so much data about our solar system -- forget the universe as a whole -- that any single operating probe should be considered junk.

  • They lost the ability to talk to it, they didn't forget how to. They lack the equipment to do it, but they know how to build it, they just don't have the funding and/or desire to do so. Small difference, but your version of the headline sure is sensationalist! What happened to this site?
    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Yes, they did "forget". In much the same way you've forgotten 90% of the things you "learned" in high school.

      I work in an institute for particle physics and we only recently shut down one of our old accelerators from the 70s. We cannot turn it back on again. Even if we wanted to. As all the engineers, physicists, and operators who designed, built and maintained that machine are either dead or retired. The plans are in storage, but God help the poor soul who has to try and find the most relevant schematics,

  • "Thanks, Obama!"

    Seriously, remember these politicians lose fewer votes cancelling this stuff than they do reducing SS payments 0.0000001%.

  • What is with all the dated shit sifting to the top of slashdot lately?!?

  • No, nobody "forgot" how to do it; the hardware simply doesn't exist anymore. It's an implementation detail, not a knowledge gap. (Unless it's the other way around and the summary is wrong while the headline is right.)

    • Yeah. It specifically says in the summary that the equipment needed no longer exists and is too expensive for NASA to rebuild. Too expensive actually means NASA doesn't have the funds for something of this priority and could spend the money in other places. "NASA has no funds to talk to ICE/ISEE-3 Spacecraft" is probably a better title if it passes the headline length
      • I have for a long time now assumed that every article summary is out to mislead us somehow (malice vs. incompetence etc.) so I can't say I'm surprised.

  • by The Cat ( 19816 )

    America couldn't build dogshit if it backed a dump truck full of scrambled eggs into a kennel.

  • by Shadowmist ( 57488 ) on Tuesday March 04, 2014 @03:59PM (#46400125)
    The post styling seems to intimate an act of negligence or mistake by NASA on the order which doomed the Martian mission which crashed into the Red Planet because of a miscommunication measuring units. Fact of the matter is that the spacecraft's mission ended decades ago, and it's apparant life is in the form of a failure in the shutdown protocol. To think of a new mission, and program the spacecraft requires time in planning and expense in recreating technology long declared obsolete, and dedication of man-hours to operation and implementation. These are not trivial considerations. Fact of the matter is that there are quite a few active missions involving craft and rovers that have exceeded their design lifetimes and are in extended mission phase. Some, maybe many of these are going to be shutdown because NASA's budget can not accommodate the expense of keeping them running along with active programs. I would not want a cent spent on this over-romanticised anomaly.
  • What are these "old-fashioned transmitters" that are not available any more? What frequency, bandwidth, and power are required?

  • A friend suggested they just make the specs open source. Someone will build it :-)

Things equal to nothing else are equal to each other.