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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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  • 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...)

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday March 04, 2014 @09:28AM (#46395585)

    Why don't the editors change the title?

  • by TrentTheThief ( 118302 ) on Tuesday March 04, 2014 @09:37AM (#46395619)

    Since when is NASA a big daddy defense contractor? This is a task they could manage in-house with the resources they already have on hand.

    The original hardware is missing, sure. But that's no big deal. RF is RF. They can use a Software Defined Radio (SDR) and throw together a program to parse the telemetry into something meaningful. After all, the only thing disposed of was the hardware. The specifications for everything else is on file.

    All they need is some support instead of more snarky remarks. Sure, NASA kinda fucked up when the hardware was trashed, but hardware that's been idle for 15-20 years looks like it's only collecting dust (which it was). But who actually knew it was still needed? That is plenty long enough for the engineers who once used it to move on to other employers or to simply grow old enough to reach retirement and leave.

  • Facebook Link? (Score:0, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday March 04, 2014 @10:20AM (#46395873)

    Since when is a Facebook page a legitimate news source?

  • The amount of the budget that NASA takes up our taxes wouldn't notice if they disappeared..

  • 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?

  • by Curunir_wolf ( 588405 ) on Tuesday March 04, 2014 @11:45AM (#46396683) Homepage Journal

    Typically liberal fallacy. You claim, because I want lower taxes, that I want NO taxes. Wrong. I want necessary taxes, minimum waste, minimum government intrusion where it should not intrude.

    Excellent, so you agree then we should pull all our troops out of Afghanistan, ASAP, as well as getting our mitts out of Somalia, Libya, Syria, Egypt, Ukraine, etc? We shouldn't be intruding in other people's business, should we? We could easily close 500+ military bases and just, well... stop intruding in other people's business around the world, let them figure it out for themselves.

    Sounds like a good start to me. But that's not what the elitist pricks in Washington typically do. Defense contractors are their wealthy friends, while soldiers and sailors are powerless fodder. So they would just shift the money around, cut the VA first, military pensions and salaries next (oh, wait .. they've already started that), make sure that Lockeed and Boeing keep making jets and Northrop Grumman keeps making ships, and continue racking up as much debt as they do now.

  • by bigpat ( 158134 ) on Tuesday March 04, 2014 @11:58AM (#46396853)

    Yes; but it's also a government agency that probably has a few geeks on payroll. As an official project, there probably isn't even time to circulate the RFPs and cut the POs. As a hobby project, it's much more likely that somebody just needs to look the other way as whatever signalling gear can hit the right frequency sees a little after-hours misuse.

    Just exactly what I was thinking. If there are still some useful instruments on this spacecraft, then could a bunch of volunteers come together under a University or non-profit to put together a transmitter and mission plan by August?

    Most people in the space exploration business get one or two shots at a mission like this in their lives, so I think some mix of people that worked on this originally, some university students and some geekend warriors might be willing to pull it together.

    Seems that NASA would just have to designate someone to be in charge and hand over the documentation to increase the odds of success over someone just making this a hobby project on the DL, but then it would be a matter of getting a relatively small team of expert volunteers together and matching them up with some time on a big enough transmitter to actually get a signal to the spacecraft.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday March 04, 2014 @01:02PM (#46397581)

    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, which will, in turn, omit any small modifications made to the machine since its inception. Not to mention the antiquated source code, hardware requirements, etc.

    It is easier to gut the machine and rebuild it from scratch than turn it on again.

Karl's version of Parkinson's Law: Work expands to exceed the time alloted it.