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Citizen Scientists Resurrect 35-Year-Old Spacecraft

They’ve done it. The crowdfunded and civilian-run ISEE-3 Reboot Project has successfully reestablished two-way communication with the International Sun/Earth Explorer (ISEE-3), a wandering 35-year-old space probe that was functionally decommissioned in 1997. This is, in itself, an important proof of concept—it means that NASA is willing to let civilians take over attempts to reestablish contact with dormant space probes, and it means that very old space probes can, even after an extended period of suspended animation, be resuscitated and communicate with scientists on Earth. To put it another way, what the team has accomplished is already a pretty big deal.

Now comes the hard part: remotely steering the craft into a stable orbit with the Sun, using the small amount of remaining propellant and taking advantage of the Moon’s gravitational pull to do so. We’ll probably know within a week or two whether they’ll be successful in this effort.

If they are, the ISEE-3 can still do a great deal of good—providing data on comets and solar wind, providing opportunities for students to interact with a real-life space probe (something NASA is understandably reluctant to let students do under normal circumstances), and acting as a symbol of both the resilience of NASA technology and the ingenuity of independent scientists. (You can keep track of their current progress on the project blog.) But even if this second effort fails, they’ve succeeded in the most important symbolic part of this effort: they’ve reestablished contact with a very old, decommissioned probe decades later than the original mission plan could have projected.


Tom Head is an author or coauthor of 29 nonfiction books, columnist, scriptwriter, research paralegal, occasional hellraiser, and proud Jackson native. His book Possessions and Exorcisms (Fact or Fiction?) covers the recent demand for exorcists over the past 30 years and demonic possession.

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