I am in charge here

With those immortal, very public, words former Secretary of State Alexander Haig doomed any future career in politics he may have had. Over three decades later, however, a similar statement regarding a long dormant spacecraft was welcomed with pride and joy.

We Are Now in Command of the ISEE-3 Spacecraft

Al Haig was a complex man who one friend of mine more than once described as a “snake”. Years after his famous 1981 statement during the tense minutes after the attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan, he insisted that his only purpose was to calm a worried nation and send a strong signal to its adversaries. It was an interesting time to be alive, what with over 30,000 nuclear weapons being pointed by the US and USSR at each other.

Yesterday a group consisting of both working and retired civilian scientists, with the help of many others around the world, issued a command to the ISEE-3 Explorer-class satellite now hurtling towards a near fly-by of Earth. The command simply told the craft to start sending telemetry on its condition back to its new controllers.

The amazing thing about all this is that the ISEE-3 was launched in 1978 and has been in a highly elongated orbit around the Sun since completing its last mission to investigate solar phenomena in 1990. Almost 10 years later it was discovered that the satellite was still functioning and could possibly be re-captured on its next closest pass of Earth in 2014. A crowd-funded “reboot” effort got off the ground in the time leading up to the 2014 encounter and was able to get the money, and US government permission, it needed to make an attempt to take control of the spacecraft. This would be made more difficult, if not impossible, by the fact that the satellite’s systems were so old and that even the equipment used to communicate with it had been long since scrapped. But the scientists, pouring over classified records from the original mission, were confident they would be able to piece together what would be needed to control it.

Yesterday, 29 May 2014, they succeeded.

We have successfully commanded both of ISEE-3’s data multiplexers into engineering telemetry mode. The current bitrate is 512 bits/sec. We have been able to verify modulated data through ground stations in Bochum Germany, Morehead State in Kentucky, and the SETI Allen Array in California.


Keep track of what comes next via their weblog at http://spacecollege.org/isee3/.

*Among this same group are the retired NASA engineers and scientists who succeeded in retrieving volumes of precious imaging data from the 1966-1967 Lunar Orbiter mission by cobbling together the equipment necessary to read 1960’s era data off tapes that had been tucked away in government archives for decades (see more at the Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project web site).

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About phil

My name is Phil Lembo. In my day job I’m an enterprise IT architect for a leading distribution and services company. The rest of my time I try to maintain a semi-normal family life in the suburbs of Raleigh, NC. E-mail me at philipATlembobrothersDOTcom. The opinions expressed here are entirely my own and not those of my employers, past, present or future (except where I quote others, who will need to accept responsibility for their own rants).