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

    by fuzzyfuzzyfungus ( 1223518 ) on Tuesday March 04, 2014 @09:16AM (#46395511) Journal

    This is a government agency, they don't do cheap, they don't know how.

    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.

  • 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 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.

  • 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 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?

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

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday March 04, 2014 @10:54AM (#46396207)

    NASA is a purchasing organization run by scientists whose first priority is satiating scientific interest, even if the interest is only tangentially related to the overarching mission. They are not very worried about schedule or cost; that's the thing about a purchasing orgainzation. NASA goes to a company like ATK* and says, "We need rockets, and we like this design and want you to incorporate this stuff in your design. Then we want to know everything about how you make it and why you make the design choices you do."

    Then, ATK makes some rockets and incorporating the new materials is difficult. NASA has a bunch of questions about new corrosion problems or rubber chemistry and since NASA is a sciency purchasing orgainzation and ATK wants to be a production organization there is some mismatch in mission. NASA as the customer requires their tangential questions to be answered, and ATK acquesces. Both organizations learn a lot about the systems. From a Science perspective, vast sums about chemistry and materials compatibility have been added to the human knowledge base. From a Production standpoint, a lot of engineers were sidetracked on tangent projects, causing schedule slips when a change to a known material might have been more expedient or less expensive. At the same time, the ATK engineers learn a lot about the tertiary effects of making primary design choices, and the quality of the products improves.

    It is the difference in missions (science vs production) between NASA and the parts supplier that cause the high price of fancy rockets, not that someone at NASA spends too much or that the contractor charges too much. People who assert otherwise don't understand the complex customer relations and product requirements between government (or private) agencies on REALLY BIG projects and purchasing contracts.

    *can substitute ATK for any big contractor

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

    by Mitchell314 ( 1576581 ) on Tuesday March 04, 2014 @11:20AM (#46396463)
    They do know cheap. And they know cheap gets you Apollo 1 do-overs.
  • Re:WOW (Score:4, Interesting)

    by bobbied ( 2522392 ) on Tuesday March 04, 2014 @11:25AM (#46396511)

    Who built that thing? Its been puttering about in space, outside of our planets protective magnetic field for 36 years and its still almost fully functional?

    Problem is we really *don't* know how much is functional beyond the beacon used to track it. As I understand it there is very little (if any) telemetry data coming from the thing. Because we cannot talk to it, we cannot ask it any questions or reprogram it. My guess is that there is very little chance that much of value works, or NASA would have kept the equipment needed to communicate with it.

  • 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.

  • by Hotawa Hawk-eye ( 976755 ) on Tuesday March 04, 2014 @12:31PM (#46397215)

    Agreed. In 2013, NASA's budget of 17.8 billion dollars made up one half of one percent [] of the total US budget of about 3.8 trillion dollars. Rounding to the nearest integer, the largest chunk of the budget pie (the Department of Health and Human Services) had a budget 53 times as large as NASA. The Social Security Administration? 50 times. The Department of Defense? 38 times.

    To put it another way, we pay 14 NASAs in interest on the national debt!

  • 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...

Things equal to nothing else are equal to each other.