Editorial | ISEE-3 Reboot Project Is Already a Winner

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Inspiration is a word that gets bandied about a lot in the space business, often as justification for multibillion-dollar programs that never come to fruition, let alone inspire.

But one enterprising volunteer group is demonstrating that inspiration need not be driven by piles of government cash. Using donated funds and equipment, the team recently reawakened and took control of a long-dormant NASA astronomy satellite.

The International Sun-Earth Explorer (ISEE)-3 was launched in 1978 as part of a three-satellite mission to study the interaction between solar wind and Earth’s magnetic field. NASA later modified the spacecraft’s orbit for follow-on missions, including comet encounters, before putting it out to pasture in 1997. 

The ISEE-3 Reboot Project, led by entrepreneur Dennis Wingo and gadfly blogger Keith Cowing — both fixtures in the space community — aims to divert the satellite back into a near-Earth orbit to resume its original astronomy mission. The group secured NASA’s formal blessing and assistance in the form of a Space Act Agreement and assembled a team that includes Morehead State University in Kentucky, a German-based amateur satellite radio group and the SETI Institute. To finance the operation, the group raised nearly $160,000 in donations through RocketHub.com, a crowdfunding website.

In late May, the team took command of the spacecraft using a transmitter provided by a German company and attached to the Arecibo radio astronomy antenna in Puerto Rico. Telemetry from the spacecraft indicates that its science instruments are powered on, Mr. Cowing reported in a June 5 update. 

Technicians are now racing to maneuver the spacecraft, which currently appears to be on a collision course with the Moon. It is unclear at this point whether they will be able to redirect the spacecraft in time.

Whatever the final outcome, the ISEE-3 Reboot Project has already succeeded in attracting an audience that the space community often has a hard time reaching. 

Credit the team, for having the vision and gumption to pull this off, and NASA, which hasn’t always embraced these types of nontraditional endeavors. Together they have shown how prolific a little inspiration can be.