An amateur astronomer has done something that NASA was unable to do: find a satellite that was lost back in 2005.
Has the IMAGE satellite come back to life? [Image by the University of Arizona]
Finding something productive to do as a hobby can have its perks; just ask Scott Tilley. Tilley is an amateur radio astronomer, and he apparently spends his spare time tracking down the radio signals of spy satellites. Recently, he was following the signal of the deeply mysterious Zuma satellite, which was reportedly lost on its way to space. Tilley was hoping to find some sign of the lost spy satellite when he stumbled upon something else: a long-lost NASA satellite.
The Imager for Magnetopause-to-Aurora Global Exploration (IMAGE) mission was meant to study the responses of Earth’s magnetosphere to solar winds. In just over five years of its launch in 2000, it was able to create a three-dimensional map of the charged particles in Earth’s magnetic field lines. However, the satellite suddenly ceased operations in December 2005, and it was declared lost.
The diagram of the IMAGE satellite [Image by NASA]
According to NASA, there was likely an event in the satellite’s power system that the satellite was unable to recover from. However, as Tilley was hunting the Zuma satellite down, he noticed a signal from coming from another satellite with the label “2000-017A”. He then recognized it as the label corresponding to the IMAGE satellite, and eventually discovered that the satellite he discovered had a rotation rate consistent with that of NASA’s lost craft.
Tilley found that the IMAGE satellite was actively transmitting data. Other amateur astronomers have since then confirmed Tilley’s findings, and word eventually got back to the team that was once in charge of the IMAGE mission.
“The odds are extremely good that it’s alive,” says Patricia Reiff, one of the IMAGE mission’s co-investigators.
There are even indications that all six of the satellite’s instruments are still working. However, there’s still no concrete data on the state of the satellite, or if all its components are indeed still operational.
NASA has now said that it is attempting to get back into contact with the lost satellite that was left for dead, but is showing signs of life once again. The agency is set to attempt to analyze data from the satellite’s signal to confirm once and for all that it is indeed the long-lost IMAGE satellite.
Image of the aurora australis taken by the IMAGE satellite [Image by NASA]
However, this may be easier said than done. After all, the satellite was lost 12 years ago. Technology has grown by leaps and bounds since then; the technology once used by the IMAGE Mission Operations Center actually doesn’t exist anymore. For now, the biggest challenge may be reverse-engineering the available technology in order to be able to talk to the satellite again.
If this is successful, NASA plans on turning on the science payload to get a better idea of what state the satellite’s instruments are in. NASA will then decide on the next steps to take based on the results of these efforts.
Say that NASA is able to bring the IMAGE satellite back to life—what then? Reiff says that the satellite may be used to monitor our auroral zone up north. If and when the satellite is revived, it’s going right back to work.
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