Science

NASA finds satellite, realises it has lost the software and kit that talk to it

Vanished IMAGE now found. Don't suppose anyone kept a copy of its comms code?

By Richard Chirgwin

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NASA has announced it will try to wake up the “zombie satellite” IMAGE, unexpectedly found working by an amateur sat-spotter.

Magnetosphere scanner IMAGE went silent, and was presumed dead, back in 2005. Then this month, while looking for the US military's failed Zuma satellite, skywatcher Scott Tilley caught a signal from the missing scientific bird.

As we reported yesterday, the rediscovery of IMAGE was tentatively confirmed by NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, which said it would use the Deep Space Network to verify the observation.

That's now happened, and Goddard boffins are certain it is indeed IMAGE up there. In this update, dated Monday, the American space agency said “observations from all five sites were consistent with the radio frequency characteristics expected of IMAGE. Specifically, the radio frequency showed a spike at the expected centre frequency, as well as side bands where they should be for IMAGE.”

The Goddard boffins next need to undertake what the agency called “significant reverse-engineering” to capture and analyse the probe's communications.

“The challenge to decoding the signal is primarily technical,” the announcement explained. “The types of hardware and operating systems used in the IMAGE Mission Operations Centre no longer exist, and other systems have been updated several versions beyond what they were at the time.”

In other words, it doesn't have the electronics and software to hand that are compatible with whatever the bird is transmitting and expecting to receive. Agency eggheads will have to figure that out before anything more can be done, such as sending instructions to the craft.

If NASA can decode data from the satellite, it will then try to, by remote control, turn on the satellite's payload “to understand the status of the various science instruments,” and make a decision about IMAGE's future. ®

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