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An artist’s rendition shows the ISEE-3 satellite headed for its encounter with Comet Giacobini-Zinner.

An artist’s rendition shows the ISEE-3 satellite headed for its encounter with Comet Giacobini-Zinner.

With NASA’s blessing and following a successful crowd-funding campaign, a group of “citizen scientists” have taken control of an abandoned NASA satellite with plans to put it back to work.

In 1997, NASA sent a command that, after two decades of service, finally shut down ISEE-3, a satellite launched in 1978 that had done duty as both a solar observatory and a comet chaser. But on May 30, 2014, using the facilities at the Arecibo observatory in Puerto Rico, a team of scientists and space buffs going by the name of the ISEE-3 Reboot Project managed to make contact with the dormant satellite and tickle it back to life.

On July 2, 2014, that same team of citizen scientists—including the original mission's flight dynamicist—fired the craft's propulsion system for the first time since 1987. It went off without a hitch, allowing the satellite to increase its rotation rate from 19.16 revolutions per minute (rpm) to 19.76 rpm. That is the rate mandated by the satellite's original specifications and leaves it ready to perform other maneuvers in the future.

In the month since rewaking ISEE-3, and with the assistance of Arecibo and the global Deep Space Network (DSN), the team has been testing command responses and poking gently at the instrumentation on board. Doing so is not easy. The original control code is long gone, so the team has to improvise its own. The satellite lacks any program storage, so each command to be executed must be sent one at a time and acknowledged for the group to be sure they can proceed to the next step.

Image courtesy of NASA.

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