Civilians Seize Control of Wandering Space Satellite and Open Source Data

The McMoon team outside of mission control. (Photo via Google)

The headline and opening paragraphs of this article stirred up a bittersweet nostalgia at first, pushing the same buttons as an 80s-era Spielberg movie: some kids take control of space junk using castoffs from the family rec room in an abandoned fast-food graveyard. But these aren’t kids, their plan is just ambitious enough without being far-fetched, and the whole thing seems to boil down to “let’s just see what happens” on the part of everyone involved –  NASA included. An open-source project upcycling icons of the 20th Century with public access (although mediated by Google). A very down-to-earth space program.

For the first time in history, an independent crew is taking control of a NASA satellite and running a crowdfunded mission. They’re doing it all from a makeshift mission control center in an abandoned McDonald’s in Mountain View, CA, using old radio parts from eBay and a salvaged flat screen TV.

“If I could come up with another absurd detail, I would,” Keith Cowing, the project’s team lead, told Betabeat.

The ISEE-3 is a disco-era satellite that used to measure space weather like solar wind and radiation, but went out of commission decades ago. Now, a small team led by Mr. Cowing have taken control of the satellite with NASA’s silent blessing.

Mr. Cowing is a former NASA employee, and now runs a handful of space news sites, like NASA Watch and SpaceRef. Sitting out in the desert one night after a documentary shoot, Mr. Cowing asked Bob Farquhar, an old NASA researcher who worked with the ISEE-3 in its glory days, what it would take to bring the satellite out of retirement.

The satellite’s battery has been dead for over 20 years, but it had solar panels to power 98 percent of the satellite’s full capabilities. In its heyday, it ran missions around the Moon and Earth, and flew through the tail of a comet. But technology gets old, and everyone happily let the successful satellite go, knowing it would be back in Earth’s orbit someday — namely, 2014.

Since the satellite went offline, the team had retired, the documentation was lost and the equipment was outdated. They could still hear the satellite out there talking, but they’d need to build the equipment to talk back.

Arecibo Observatory, Puerto Rico. (Photo by Molly Stevens.)

But the satellite had been built for longevity with very simple technology. To get it back would simply be like trying to make concrete with the original Roman recipe. In other words, they’d need a few outdated parts, but it could definitely be done.

“What’s so hard about that?” Mr. Cowing remembers asking.

Two weeks later, they began a crowdfunding campaign that would beat its $125,000 goal and go on to raise $160,000. Within another six weeks, a small team was in Puerto Rico, running around Arecibo Observatory running tests, hoisting a transmitter into place with a helicopter, ready to make contact.

Read the rest of the article at