Long dead NASA spacecraft phones home

The aurora hunting Imager for Magnetopause-to-Aurora Global Exploration (IMAGE) reconnected with Earth after spending 10 years orbiting the Earth in silence. It was detected by amateur astronomer Scott Tilley. 

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The IMAGE satellite could have been trying to make contact with the ground for over a decade.
Credit: University of Arizona/NASA

An aurora investigating satellite that has been silent for over a decade lives again.

Amateur astronomer Scott Tilley picked up the lost transmission on 20 January 2018 while he was hunting the skies looking for signals from the secretive US government satellite Zuma, which suffered a launch mishap on 8 January.   

Tilley quickly realised that the signal was not from Zuma, and matched the position of the signal to the orbit of the apparently defunct Imager for Magnetopause-to-Aurora Global Exploration (IMAGE), which lost contact with Earth in 2005.

He reported his findings to NASA, who have since used five separate radio antennas to aquire the signal from the satellite, and found it matched with the expected frequency band they would expect to see coming from IMAGE.


Read more about the aurora in BBC Sky at Night Magazine:

IMAGE was the first satellite which was designed specifically to image the plasma of Earth’s inner magnetosphere as well as its interaction with the solar wind.

It operated well for five years, before it suddenly stopped communicating with the ground on 18 December 2005 for reasons that are still unknown.

All attempts to reconnect with the satellite failed and in 2007 NASA stopped trying.

At some point between then and now the satellite appears to have restarted and started transmitting data back to Earth, but no one was listening out to hear it.

The original IMAGE team are now working on finding a way to contact the satellite and re-add it to the cadre of satellites observing our planet.

“The good news is NASA is working on a recovery plan,” says Patricia Reiff, a member of the original IMAGE science team at Rice University.

“UC Berkeley still has a ground station that was used for realtime tracking and control. They are scrambling to find the old software and see if they can get the bird to respond. Apparently, there are data side lobes on the transmission, so that’s a good sign."


 

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