back to article IT'S ALIVE! ISEE-3 responding to commands

The crowd-funded group that's seeking to revive the ISEE-3 probe is crowing, and no wonder: they have tentatively taken control of a spacecraft once thought to be beyond help. ISEE-3, the 1978-launched Sun-studying-come-comet-chasing NASA deep space probe, is heading Earthwards, but until the reboot project got off the ground …


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  1. caffeine addict

    Hang on... isn't it Voyager 6 that's supposed to come back...?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      I wonder if ThePirateBay will make a home in orbit at some point?

    2. Daniel B.


      calling itself V'ger and looking for its creator.

  2. Jacksonville

    Kerbal API?

    1. phuzz Silver badge

      Do you really want a 30 year old satellite landing on your head? Or exploding? Or exploding and landing on your head?

      1. stucs201

        It'll be fine if they're using mech-jeb.

  3. james 68


    Congratulations are in order I recon.

    Well done those chaps.

    1. AMBxx Silver badge
      Thumb Up

      Re: Congrats

      Missed this story first time around, thanks for the interesting read.

      And well done all those involved.

    2. MrT

      Well done!

      Have one for now and several for later when they park this thing - don't want any mishaps with a stray shopping trolley out at L1.

      Well done!

    3. Getriebe

      Re: Congrats

      And Chapettes

  4. Paul_Murphy


    Also the whole story behind it and more at NASA: is well worth a read through.

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Thanks Paul

    Interesting background and well done Space College team!

  6. Gordon 10 Silver badge
    Thumb Up

    I'll say one thing for NASA

    They know how to build a damn spacecraft!

    It does make me wonder if there is a quality vs quantity debate to be had in the future of space exploration - i.e. once a certain level of technology is reached is one big instrument package on 1 big spacecraft the way to go, or is there mileage in the swarm/microsat concept.

    For example is any work being on sats that have the sensor equivalent of the Square Kilometer Array. Say for example a network of low cost Camera's attached to a fairly widely dispersed set of microsats.

    1. mr.K

      Re: I'll say one thing for NASA

      To a certain degree it is already happening, but there are limits to this cheapened technology effect. Mainly it is in launch cost. As long as we can't really cut deep into the cost of putting something in orbit there will be a lower limit on how cheap you will make the satellite itself. Of course smaller size of electronics means smaller satellites means less weight means lower launch cost. Putting a Jesus Phone in orbit doesn't really cost that much (with only regards to weight and it would of course have problems with it's antenna as it is very hard to hold it right in zero-g). But you need shielding etc and launch will always be a big part of the cost. And any custom build tends to end up with lower weight.

      Secondly there are all sorts weird engineering challenges you really have to consider and the series will always be small when it is going to space.* So the engineering cost is usually higher than the parts, and series production can help on that a little, but I imagine it is more helpful in cutting down time from idea to launch rather than cost. For a long time we have sent outdated technology to space, not to mention how outdated it gets during it's time of operation.

      *look up whiskers and space

      1. Don Jefe

        Re: I'll say one thing for NASA

        mr.K is spot on about the limited benefits of production for 'space stuff' and there's also the 'system' aspects that make everything difficult.

        We provide tooling and test rigs to every aerospace company in the West and I think 'almost' production is a pretty good way to describe everything they do. The last few decades have seen a lot more 'space worthy' components become catalog parts, but so very much of that is modified by the end user after purchase. Stuff 'almost' fits their requirements but housings and brackets almost always need to have something modified and you get into some really fine line accounting whether or not it's cheaper to create a new widget or modify the existing widget. As mr.K notes, the engineering costs are significant.

        The 'system' part is the real issue though. The amount of 'new' anything in any new craft is minimal because changing big subsystems plays hell on everything and doubly so if something goes wrong. You can simulate, prototype and test for ages but there's only one valid way to get real data and that's to really (in this case) stick it on a rocket and launch it into space. Nobody really wants to take too much of a risk because the financial component outweighs curiosity at this time (which is sad). But I've been in plenty of roles myself where I didn't want to take risks because I liked the job too much, so I understand, but it's still sad.

        So people try to minimize those risks by using as much proven tech as they can. Culturally, the last several Mars rover missions have been a far bigger leadership victory for NASA than they have been engineering wise. Don't get me wrong, the engineering is absolutely fantastic, but the fact NASA got those missions through the red tape is the real story. A lot of powerful people like to use NASA as the scapegoat for justifying their own pork projects and they like to punish NASA when their pork projects don't get funded. So getting highly experimental projects into space is a big bureaucracy challenge. They sucked at it for a long time. But they're getting better at selling their value and that's the first step in more highly experimental projects, which is certainly what I want to happen :)

      2. Pookietoo

        Re: smaller size of electronics means smaller satellites

        Except smaller semiconductor fabrication leads to increased sensitivity to radiation, requiring more shielding.

        1. Hud Dunlap

          Re: smaller size of electronics means smaller satellites

          You can make Semiconductor devices radiation hardened. Harris corporation used to do it. The problem is some of the steps are so outside normal processing that in essence you need a separate fab to make them. That is why Harris closed it's VHSIC lab many years ago.

    2. Fibbles

      Re: I'll say one thing for NASA

      I'm not an engineer so I await the downvotes but...

      Wouldn't a swarm of smaller satellites mean more surface area? I presume this would necessitate more radiation shielding, which in turn would mean a higher overall mass compared to one large satellite. More mass would drive up the launch cost.

      1. Don Jefe

        Re: I'll say one thing for NASA

        The biggest challenge with 'swarms' of any kind is communication. Propulsion is an issue as well, but that's an engineering problem*.

        As individual units in a swarm get smaller so do energy budgets and unit functionality has to be compromised, in proportion to the size and desired functionality. The sensor coverage area of a swarm is a big factor as well. Remember, space is, really, really big.

        At present we simply don't have the technology to deal with the available energy problem and make the units fun or useful. You get 'dumb' units that can talk, but they're blind or they have good sensor visibility but can't tell anyone what they're seeing.

        If you look at experiments with swarms of actual robots you'll notice that their operating environment is always strictly defined. That's not so much because their creator/operator is worried the swarm will escape (which would be hilarious), but because their wee batteries limit their intra-swarm communications to very small distances (small in relation to distance of less marginalized radio transmission). They units could communicate further apart if you dialed back mobility or sensor density and/or sensitivity, but a 'swarm' of immobile things doesn't illustrate the principles of swarming any better than a 'swarm' of rocks (which is sometimes referred to as a 'pile' of rocks :).

        The most interesting ideas I have seen (others here may have better examples, I can't know everything :) involve swarms heading out in front of a 'full size' craft that works like a repeater and send and receives data from the swarm and from its home planet. It's a neat idea, but that 'really, really big' descriptor of space still severely limits overall swarms in outer space.

        I feel confident we'll eventually get the problems resolved, but they won't be solved as a part of swarm research. Something(s) radically new will appear and be integrated into swarm units after it has changed lots of other things like power generation and wireless communications.

        *Propulsion is a classic Pick-2 engineering problem. People say it in IT a lot: on spec, on time or on budget, pick two, but it's a very old axiom. We have the technology, and the time, to do a lot more with propulsion but the costs are simply unreasonable. Obviously we aren't talking faster than light propulsion, but about density, consistency and service life. We have everything, to greatly improve those things, just the money isn't there. But we've got it, that's why it's an engineering problem, the tech just needs to be assembled to meet the specs.

        But the communications bit is a science problem. We don't have the science so there's nothing to put together in a spec satisfying sort of way. The distinction between an engineering and a science problem may seem a bit nitpicky, but it's really not.

  7. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Built in the late 70s

    Launched into space.

    Still operating.

    My iThingy should last so long.

  8. Benchops


    Let's see if they can get cyanogenmod on it

  9. John Brown (no body) Silver badge
    Thumb Up

    Now THAT'S a vintage computing hobbyists dream

    See title

  10. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Up

    Bravo to them, and "Shame on You" to NASA who TWOCK'ed it then threw away the equipment needed to recover it.

  11. Stevie


    I salute the genius, but the risk to the ISS must now, in the light of the current political situation, be giving someone the heebie-jeebies and I don't doubt the forces of democracy are beginning to wonder "How is this not an unauthorized breach of a government-owned cpu?"

    But it most certainly is an awesome feat of engineering at both ends.

    1. Crazy Operations Guy

      Re: Bah!

      The group has written permission from all the various agencies and owners of this satellite to take control of it. So long as they don't do anything nefarious with it like ramming it into something or cause interference with other spacecraft, they'll be fine legally.

    2. Don Jefe

      Re: Bah!

      There's no risk to the ISS. If the satellite can be controlled from here then you can rest assured it can be controlled by the US. Abandoning the craft was never an impossible technical challenge, NASA just determined it wasn't worth reestablishing control.

      Whether or not NASA made the right choice or not is debatable, but I think they did. Cast off government tech is the driving force behind a lot more civilian technology advancements than people realize. We've spent the last several years building what will be one of the most advanced large mirror fabrication facilities on Earth, and the basic concept for our design was an experimental mirror fabrication system I bought at a government surplus sale ages ago. We just determined what they had done wrong then scaled it up, a lot.

  12. Only me!
    Thumb Up

    Good old days

    They don't build they like they used to :-)

  13. Will Godfrey Silver badge

    Great stuff

    Both the original builders and the current team.

    I expect the iPeople are wondering what all the fuss is about. I can almost hear their thoughts.

    "Why bother with that old thing when you can have a nice new shiny one?"

  14. Mage
    Thumb Up


    I may come across as a negative, cynical person. But really I just try to call it as it is.

    This is great.

  15. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    This is really cool, but I wonder

    If people can "commandeer" an old NASA spacecraft, what stops them from taking over others that NASA wants to remain in control of? Do they have any security beyond security through obscurity (i.e. knowing the exact carrier frequencies and so on)

    I would be simultaneously upset and amused if a few of these guys with a 4chan bent decided they want an encore and managed to take the Mars Rover from NASA's control.

    1. stucs201

      Re: take the Mars Rover from NASA's control.

      Already happened. How else do you explain this?

      Possibly NSWF (if you have a particularly fussy bofh). Probably fine though.

    2. Don Jefe

      Re: This is really cool, but I wonder

      Use the following code to take command of any satellite: up, up, down, down, left, right, left, right, B, A, Start.

  16. defiler
    Thumb Up

    What a waste of money

    What a magnificent, fantastic waste of money!

    I wholeheartedly approve!

    1. Don Jefe
      Thumb Up

      Re: What a waste of money

      No shit, right? This sort of thing is the reason why it's possible to get rich. So many people forget that money isn't the goal. The goal is gathering enough money to do outlandish and amazing stuff with.

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