Coming just two days before its 36th birthday, the International Sun-Earth Explorer 3 (ISEE-3) spacecraft has embarked on its new interplanetary science mission thanks to a group of citizen scientists who resurrected the vintage spacecraft.
The citizen scientist effort, known as the ISEE-3 Reboot Project, is being led Skycorp and SpaceRef Interactive, the same group behind the Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project, with the nonprofit Space College Foundation coordinating the education and public outreach efforts.
After completing a successful crowdfunding campaign to recapture the spacecraft, NASA announced it had signed a Space Act Agreement with Skycorp as part of the ISEE-3 Reboot Project. The agreement allowed the ISEE-3 Reboot Project to contact and control the spacecraft. According to NASA, this marked the first time the agency had reached such an agreement “for use of a spacecraft the agency is no longer using or ever planned to use again.”
The group’s plan was to reestablish communication with the spacecraft, command it to fire its thrusters, and bring it back to a near Earth orbit so that it could resume its original mission, studying the solar wind and its interaction with Earth’s magnetosphere.
On May 29, 2014, the team successfully reestablished contact with the spacecraft, and on July 2 they fired the spacecraft’s engines for the first time since 1987. However, subsequent attempts to fire the thrusters failed due to a depletion of the nitrogen pressurant needed to accomplish the task.
The ISEE-3 Reboot Project later announced that all attempts to alter the orbit of the ISEE-3 spacecraft had failed and that the spacecraft would begin its Interplanetary Citizen Science Mission on August 10 as it flies by the Moon.
Instead of being redirected to a near Earth orbit, the spacecraft will now resume an orbit around the Sun similar to that of Earth’s. As some of the spacecraft’s 13 science instruments are still functional, the ISEE-3 Reboot Project is currently focused on implementing plans to be able to receive science data no matter where it goes.
In conjunction with its new mission, the ISEE-3 Reboot Project announced a collaboration with Google to provide an interactive website for the spacecraft available at SpacecraftForAll.com. The website provides a live feed of data currently being received by the spacecraft as well as the spacecraft’s current location. One of the project’s chief goals was to make the ISEE-3’s science data openly available to everyone.
This will be the second time in the spacecraft’s storied history that it has received a new mission. The first being when NASA redirected the spacecraft in 1982, after completing its original mission, to study the interaction between the solar wind and the atmosphere of comets. Renamed the International Cometary Explorer (ICE), it became the first spacecraft to visit a comet when it flew through the tail of Comet Giacobini–Zinner on Sept. 11, 1985. It would later join a fleet of spacecrafts sent to study Halley’s Comet in 1986.