What do you do when a spacecraft launched in 1978 returns to Earth after a 30-year journey into outer space? Grab it and turn it into a learning communications lab for the coding and development community!
This is exactly what is happening with ISEE-3, the spacecraft that NASA built in the 1970s to study the solar wind and plasma between the Earth and the Moon. Today, the spacecraft is returning to a world where the technology originally created to communicate with it is obsolete.
Enter Keith Cowing, a former NASA employee with a strong interest in space technology and a lifelong pursuit of public education. Keith and several other former NASA employees decided to use modern technology to capture an old spacecraft and place it in Earth orbit to use as an educational platform for programmers and hardware manufacturers.
If successful, this mission will lead to a civilian science project in which spacecraft data is available to all programmers and tech enthusiasts, and where the potential uses of the data are only limited by the public imagination.
Keith Cowing and Space College
In May 2014, Keith and his colleagues — collectively known as SpaceRef Interactive, Skycorp, and Space College — laid the foundations needed to communicate with an incoming spacecraft known as ISEE-3. In this interview, Keith describes the goals of the Space College and how the ISEE-3 spacecraft plays into it.
MUO : So what are Space College, Skycorp and SpaceRef?
Whale : SpaceRef is my company — SpaceRef.com. We publish SpaceRef, NASA Watch and Astrobiology.com. This is, so to speak, a «day job». Skycorp is owned by Dennis Wingo and is the legal entity through which the first phase of this project is being carried out. The Space College is a non-profit organization that we founded that will eventually take over the educational and community aspects — citizen science — of this project.
MUO : What inspired you to create the Space College?
Whale A: It comes from my past, I used to be an educator before I worked for NASA. I have been on the board of directors at the Challenger Space Science Education Center for a number of years.
It was one of those moments in life when you could choose one of two paths. You can go and make a lot of money, or you can go and do something that has more potential. I just stopped chasing money and instead started focusing my efforts on a non-profit organization because I felt it would be more beneficial for everyone involved.
The non-profit also lets you do things just because it’s cool. we did for this project — legally, all our donors are just donors, not investors. But because we’re doing it at cost, we’ve been able to make «cool» one of the main factors behind why we’re doing it, and I think that’s why a lot of people have given us money.
We’re just trying to fill in the gaps. We’re not crazy about citizen science, but at the same time, we’re also not trying too hard to capitalize on it, that we’re not doing what needs to be done.
ISEE-3 reboot project
MUO : Where did the idea for the ISEE-3 reboot project come from?
Whale A: The ISEE-3 spacecraft was launched when I was in college. I just remember it because of the orbit — it’s not your typical spacecraft. Bob Farquhar, who is now in his 80s and was the guy behind it all, came to my site and he just relentlessly turned to people and said, “Hey! He is coming back! «He couldn’t get NASA to do it, so he turned my hand and everyone else’s hand.
Around April 2, I was picking up our Lunar Mission Control Center, which was located in an abandoned McDonald’s located in a NASA research base, and he came in and said, «Hey, can we do this?». So I did a couple of calculations and called a few people at NASA and they didn’t say no! So we talked more about it and we got a call from a few more people at NASA and they all haven’t said no yet.
Finally, Dennis got a little excited and said, «You know this has to be done within the next few months, so we should just get it done.» So I finally got into telco with NASA and said I’m going to start a crowdfunding campaign April 14th at 11am ET. They didn’t say no! Within a day or so we had $23,000 and it just went from there. This totally surprised us as much as NASA.
At some point, we had to negotiate with them, because although it is an abandoned spaceship, it belongs to them. So we came to an agreement. We had to recreate the hardware and software, and then we had to get a big enough telescope.
Recreating old NASA hardware with software
MUO : I guess not everyone can communicate with these satellites, right? Should there be special codes for command and control?
Whale A: Yes, there are codes. There are certain teams, and that’s what we’re not going to release. Second, you need a really big radio telescope to talk to him. You can listen it’s with something smaller, but to «close the link» you need a big telescope with some capability.
We used software defined radio. What this has allowed us to do is to recreate the functionality of the hardware that NASA destroyed decades ago. I mean, you can buy this stuff, but you have to be able to tell him what to do. Then you need to have more than just commands — it’s not the same as using Google Translate — you need to understand the language and syntax.
MUO : I take it this all came from your past experience at NASA?
Whale : Yes. We have people working on this project who have completed the command of the spacecraft. and have all this documentation. As a result, we now know more about this spacecraft than anyone else. We also have a piece of software that mimics how all software worked back then, except we’re now talking to a spacecraft with a laptop.
MUO : Was all of the software for recreating old NASA hardware built from scratch?
Whale A: Yes, but built on Labview. We’re pretty much trying to use pre-made stuff, but whenever you’re building something like this, you’re using Labview. A software-defined radio from Ettus Research, but you have to specifically program it to emulate the hardware you’re using, but it has the necessary tools to do so. So, yes, elbow grease and special things are required, but we didn’t want to complicate it. We wanted to make it easy.
Catch a spaceship — everything is in time
MUO : Was the communication with ISEE-3 a one-shot deal? Are you either doing it right the first time or are you losing ISEE-3?
Whale A: Well, we can talk to him as long as we can reach it with a radio telescope. The problem is, because of the orbit it’s in and where it’s going, if we don’t do anything, it’ll just circle the moon and fly off somewhere else. In order to change its speed and trajectory so that we can return it to Earth’s orbit, we need to start the engines soon.
Fortunately, due to what we have learned about the spacecraft and its trajectory, we have a large margin. We have 150 meters per second delta-v — this is how much fuel this ship has. We only need 10 meters per second. I think it’s around 6 to do our first burn. But if we don’t do that burn by the middle or end of June, it will become almost impossible — there just won’t be enough fuel. He’s not going back here for decades, so we have one chance.
MUO : That is, the goal is to take control and put it into Earth orbit?
Whale : Yes. Well, now we’re in control. The first test before we can start the engine is to tell him to start the engine. And, you know, the moment we got the radio telescope, and as soon as NASA gave us everything in order, a few minutes later we were talking to him.
MUO : It must have been an exciting moment!
Whale : Yes! If you go to SpaceCollege.org and scroll down, you will see a video of the happy dance. I made mine when no one else was around, but everyone else made theirs in the control room. So, we had to learn how to communicate with him, and then tell him to do something.
We told him to turn on the telemetry transmitters. We are now listening to the telemetry and have found that all scientific instruments are on and the spacecraft is in surprisingly good condition.
We have to listen further to understand how the propulsion system works, because you want to make sure that when you start the engine, you don’t blow it up. Then we’ll be ready to test the engines in about a week or so. We chose June 17 — that’s when a good trajectory starts — if it doesn’t work on that day, we’ll have a few days’ supply.
On June 17th we plan to conduct our TCM or Trajectory Correction Maneuver. After that we will be good to go. We have Lunar Flyby on August 10th. This will be the Apollo 13 moment because the spacecraft has no batteries.
MUO : Good but do you have power on the instruments right now?
Whale A: Yes, it’s like the battery-powered solar radios you use for camping — if you take the batteries out and take them outside, they’ll work until the Sun goes behind the clouds. The problem is, when you do this moon flight, it will fly about 31 miles above the surface.
We’ll be flying around the back and that’s blocking the sun. So, for 20 or 25 minutes, it doesn’t completely turn off, it just turns off. It doesn’t restart like a computer. It’s like a light bulb — it’s on or off. The processor has built-in commands.
It will turn off and then hopefully turn back on. If that happens, and the spacecraft doesn’t get too cold, we just need to do a couple more burns and then we’ll get it into scientific orbit.
Retired spacecraft as an educational tool
MUO : That is, the plan is to forever and ever go into orbit around the earth?
Whale : Yes. On an Earth-Moon flight path, swing around the moon and then fly off somewhere else. We’ll bend that trajectory a couple of times to get it into a large loop orbit, and then fire up the thrusters again to capture it.
We hope we get it to the last orbit where we don’t have to do a lot of orbit work. And finally, people, with their own equipment and their own ingenuity, can listen to it too.
MUO A: At this point, it will be used as a teaching aid?
Whale : Yes. We look at it as citizen science.» A platform where instead of data coming and going for years until some scientist writes a paper, we’re going to put it right on the site. We have a partner that we’ll be announcing shortly that will help us do this — where it will be available worldwide.
We believe that if you can spend $10 to save a spaceship, you can use this data. We’re trying to make it available to as many people as possible, and we’re not going to limit what people do with the data. If someone wants to do something with it that we don’t expect, that’s the whole point.
MUO : On your website, did you mention that the long term plan is to go after him?
Whale : This is the variation that Bob Farquhar would like to do. Of course, this is a NASA spacecraft, so there are other voices as to what will be done with it. The problem is, we won’t be able to talk to him for years, except with a giant radio telescope. Then all the people who want to listen to it won’t be able to. Therefore, my personal preference is that we keep it in orbit around the Earth.
MUO : So it’s still to be discussed as far as it’s possible…