Scott Tilley never intended to rediscover a lost $135 million NASA satellite.
The amateur astronomer, who searches for satellites in secret orbits as a hobby, originally set out on Jan. 20 to scan the skies for Zuma, a classified military satellite that supposedly failed to reach orbit after a Jan. 8 launch from Cape Canaveral. Instead, the signal that hit his ground station came back with the mysterious identity of "IMAGE."
"I did a little Googling and discovered that it had been 'Lost in Space' since December 18, 2005 after just dropping off the grid suddenly," Tilley wrote on his Riddles in Space blog. "NASA considered the spacecraft a total loss due to a design flaw that manifested while the spacecraft was in its extended mission."
After gathering more data on IMAGE's signal, Tilley reached out to NASA. By utilizing its Deep Space Network of spacecraft communication facilities to analyze the signal, NASA confirmed that the once-dead satellite was indeed back on the celestial map.
"On the afternoon of Jan. 30, the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab in Laurel, Maryland, successfully collected telemetry data from the satellite," they wrote in a blog post. "The signal showed that the space craft ID was 166 — the ID for IMAGE."
Perhaps even more impressive is this: 13 years after it was declared lost, the satellite may yet have enough life to conduct some aspects of its original mission.
"The NASA team has been able to read some basic housekeeping data from the spacecraft, suggesting that at least the main control system is operational," NASA added.
False-color image of ultraviolet Aurora australis captured by NASA's IMAGE satellite and overlaid onto NASA's satellite-based Blue Marble image. (Photo: NASA)
Launched in March 2000, IMAGE (Imager for Magnetopause-to-Aurora Global Exploration), was the first spacecraft dedicated to imaging and studying Earth's magnetosphere. During the five years before it abruptly vanished, the satellite confirmed several theories regarding the interaction of the solar wind with the magnetosphere; it also captured unprecedented images and discovering phenomena previously unknown to science.
While NASA is excited to have the satellite back, the agency is quick to note that technology back on Earth has advanced significantly since it was lost. To that end, they may need to perform some reverse engineering to read its data stream.
"The types of hardware and operating systems used in the IMAGE Mission Operations Center no longer exist, and other systems have been updated several versions beyond what they were at the time, requiring significant reverse-engineering," they shared.
As Tilley notes on his blog, the most important lesson gleaned from IMAGE's rediscovery may be the way we treat lost satellites in the future.
"Perhaps this is the beginning of a new way of thinking about archiving mission hardware and software when failures seem to have a probability of being recovered in the distant future," he writes. "Humanity’s future in space will require us to think about compatibility with hardware that we let slip away for long periods of time and somehow finds its way home and also listening for that hardware so we know when wayward missions come back to us."