36-Year-Old 'Retired' Spacecraft to be Jump-Started

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A decades-old spacecraft appears to be in great health despite being abandoned in the solar system for the better part of two decades, the private team working to revive the NASA probe says.

The International Sun-Earth Explorer 3 was launched in 1978 but retired, after distinguished service, in 1997 by NASA. Now private citizens are trying to put the bird back in business with an online campaign to raise enough cash to wake it up.

All instruments are on and NASA's International Sun/Earth Explorer 3spacecraft, or ISEE-3 for short, is responding to hails from its new command team, which hopes to send the probe on new adventures in deep space.

The team, called the ISEE-3 Reboot Project, is working out of a former McDonald's near NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California. So far, the team has been gathering information on where the spacecraft is moving, how fast it is spinning and how much power it has. [NASA's ISEE-3 Spacecraft in Photos]

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ISEE-3 has ample power (a surplus of 28 watts) and its instruments are all turned on, although how well they are functioning will require further investigation, said team co-leader Keith Cowing.

"We need to understand [the spacecraft] before we fire the engines for the main thrust," he told Space.com. That will likely come on June 17, and it is intended to eventually put ISEE-3 in a stable spot where it can reliably communicate with Earth.

Moving Day

The team made contact with the spacecraft in late May under a Space Act Agreement with NASA. It's the first time any private entity has taken over a spacecraft, leading to careful discussions on both ends about what is allowed. The current communications agreement runs through June 25, but Cowing said it's an incremental date expected to be extended.

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The project's ultimate goal is to make the spacecraft available for more science, although what ISEE-3 will do is still not known. Since being launched in 1978, the spacecraft has been a comet chaser, a solar probe and more. NASA ceased communications with it in 1997.

The spacecraft first, however, needs to be moved. Cowing projects the first firings will need to change ISEE's speed by about 6 meters (20 feet) a second. He said the best "guesstimate" of fuel available shows plenty of margin: there's enough to alter the spacecraft's speed by 150 meters (492 feet) a second.

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