Putting classic cars on the road or classic boats on the water isn’t that odd, but what about putting a classic spacecraft back into service? The ISEE-3 Reboot Project is a crowdfunding effort aimed at reactivating a comet-chasing space probe launched in the 1970s. Using a radio telescope and a software emulator of the original control equipment to contact and reactivate the hibernating unmanned probe, the hope is to use the International Sun/Earth Explorer 3 (ISEE-3) to conduct a privately funded mission to flyby a comet.

Launched on August 12, 1978 atop a Delta rocket at Launch Complex 17B, Cape Canaveral, Florida, the ISEE-3 is one of three ISEE spacecraft built and operated jointly by NASA and ESA. It was the first to be placed in a halo orbit about the L1 Sun-Earth Lagrangian point about 1.5 million km (924,000 mi) from Earth, showing that such a maneuver was possible.

The 479 kg (1,056 lb) unmanned probe is 1.7 m (5.5 ft) in diameter and 1.6 m (5.2 ft) tall. It’s 16-sided body is plated with solar cells providing 173 watts and it carries 13 instruments, including a magnetometer, cosmic ray experiments, devices for studying the sun, and radio mapping equipment.

ISEE-3’s main mission was to study the outermost boundaries of the Earth’s magnetosphere, make a detailed survey of the structure of the solar wind near Earth, and to measure cosmic rays. When its original mission was completed in 1982, ISEE-3 was temporarily renamed the International Cometary Explorer (ICE) and tasked with using slingshot orbits around the Earth and Moon to send it on a flyby trajectory of the comet Giacobini-Zinner and the more famous Halley’s comet. It was then sent on a heliospheric mission to study coronal mass ejections from the Sun. From May 1997, ISEE-3 was shut down with only a carrier signal left transmitting.

Restarting a vintage space probe

The ISEE-3 Reboot Project consists of the team behind the Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project (LOIRP), Space College, Skycorp, and SpaceRef and is working with the cooperation, though without the funding, of NASA. Its goal is to re-establish contact with ISEE-3, order it to fire its engine to alter its orbit to bring it nearer to Earth with the ultimate aim of sending it on another comet flyby mission. According to the project team, the data recovered by the reactivated probe will be crowdsourced.

The team says that the use of a radio telescope at at Morehead State University in Kentucky for the job has been secured and that team members at Morehead State University, working with AMSAT-DL in Germany, have already detected the carrier signals from both of ISEE-3's transmitters.

ISEE-3's mission orbits (Image: NASA)

NASA is not directly involved in the project. In fact, it’s already donated ISEE-3 to the Smithsonian, but it is cooperating because it sees the recovery project as an opportunity for public outreach and education. Since no government money is forthcoming, the team has turned to crowdfunding as an alternative with a campaign running on RocketHub until May 18. The funds raised will cover the costs of using the radio telescope and developing new software.

According to the project team, to reboot ISEE-3 the probe must be contacted in May and it must make its orbital maneuvers by mid-June, which include a flyby of the Moon at an altitude of less than 50 km. In the meantime, the team needs to find the original spacecraft commands and develop software to emulate the hardware used to originally control the spacecraft, which will require recovering and analyzing the original mission documents.

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