What do you do when a spacecraft launched in 1978 returns back to Earth after a 30 year journey into deep space? Capture it and turn it into an orbiting educational communications lab for the programming and maker community of course!
This is exactly what’s happening with the ISEE-3, a spacecraft that NASA built in the 1970’s to examine 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 Today, the spacecraft is returning to a world where the technology originally created to communicate with it is obsolete.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 an intense interest in space technologies, and a life-long pursuit of public education. Keith and several other former NASA folks decided to use modern technology to capture the old spacecraft, and put it into Earth orbit to be used as an educational platform for programmers and hardware makers.
If successful, this mission will result in a citizen-based science project where the data from the spacecraft will be available to all programmers and tech enthusiasts, and where the potential use for the data is limited only by the public imagination.
Keith Cowing and Space College
In May of 2014, Keith and his colleagues – collectively known as SpaceRef Interactive, Skycorp and the Space College – laid the foundations required to communicate with the approaching spacecraft known as the ISEE-3. In this interview, Keith describes the goals of the Space College, and how the ISEE-3 spacecraft plays into that.
MUO: So, what exactly is Space College, Skycorp and SpaceRef?
Keith: SpaceRef is my company – SpaceRef.com. We publish SpaceRef, NASA Watch, and Astrobiology.com. It’s the “day job”, so to speak. Skycorp is owned by Dennis Wingo, and that is the corporate entity through which the first phase of this project is being done. Space College is the non-profit organization that we founded, that will eventually take over the educational and public outreach aspects – the citizen science – of this project.
MUO: What was your inspiration for starting the Space College?
Keith: It comes from my background, having been an educator at one point in time before I worked for NASA. I was on the Board of Directors at the Challenger Center for Space Science Education for a number of years.
It was one of those points in life where you can choose one of two paths. You can go out and make a lot of money, or you can go out and do something that has some greater potential. I just stopped chasing the money and instead started focusing my efforts on the non-profit, because I felt that would be more beneficial for everyone involved.
A non-profit also lets you do stuff just because it’s cool. The crowd-funding we did for this project – legally all our donors are just donors, they’re not investors. But, because we’re doing this at cost, we did manage to have “cool” as one of the major factors as to why we’re doing it, and I think that’s why a lot of people gave us money.
We’re just trying to fill in the gaps. We’re not going crazy with the citizen science, but at the same time we’re also not getting so much into having to make a buck off of this, that we don’t do what needs to be done.
The ISEE-3 Reboot Project
MUO: Where did the idea for the ISEE-3 Reboot Project come from?
Keith: The ISEE-3 spacecraft was actually launched while I was in college. I just remember it because of the orbit – this is not your typical spacecraft. Bob Farquhar, who is in his 80’s now and who was the guy behind all that, came to my website and he’s just been relentless in going to people and saying, “Hey! It’s coming back!” He couldn’t get NASA to do this, so he twisted my arm and everybody else’s arm.
On April 2nd or so, I was putting together our Lunar mission control center – which was housed in an abandoned McDonald’s located on 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 a called a few more people at NASA and they still didn’t say no.
Finally, Dennis got a little excited about it and said, “You know what, it’s got to be done within the next couple of months, so we should just do it.” So, I finally ended up in a telecom with NASA and told them I’m going to start a crowdfunding campaign on April 14th at 11 AM Eastern. They did not say no! Within a day or so, we had $23,000, and it just went from there. It totally surprised us as much as it did NASA.
At some point, we had to reach an agreement with them, because even though it’s a derelict spacecraft, it’s theirs. So we came to an agreement. We had to recreate the hardware and the software, and then we had to get a big enough telescope.
Recreating Old NASA Equipment With Software
MUO: I’m assuming not just anyone can communicate with these satellites right? There must be special codes for command and control?
Keith: Yes, there are codes. There are specific commands, and it’s the one thing we’re not going to release. The second thing is that you need a really big radio telescope to talk to it. You can listen to it with something smaller, but to “close the link”, you need a large telescope with quite some capability.
We used software-defined radio. What that allowed us to do is 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 it what to do. Then, you have to have more than just the commands – it’s not like using Google Translate – you’ve got to actually understand the language and the syntax.
MUO: I take it all of that came with your past experience at NASA?
Keith: Yeah. We have people working on this project that have done spacecraft command, and have all of that documentation. It ended up that we now know more about that spacecraft than anyone else. We also have a piece of software that emulates how all the software worked back then, except now we’re talking to the spacecraft with a laptop.
MUO: Was all of the software to recreate old NASA equipment created from scratch?
Keith: Yeah, but built on Labview. We’re pretty much trying to use off-the-shelf stuff, but whenever you create something like this, you use Labview. The software-defined radio is from Ettus Research, but you have to specifically program it to emulate the hardware that you’re using, but it has the necessary tools to do that. So, yeah, there’s some elbow grease and special stuff required, but we didn’t want to make this difficult. We wanted to make it easy.
Catching a Spacecraft – It’s All In The Timing
MUO: Was communicating with the ISEE-3 a one-shot deal? You either get it right the first time or lose the ISEE-3?
Keith: Well, we can talk to it as long as we can reach it with the radio telescope. The problem is that, because of the orbit it’s in and where it’s going, if we don’t do anything it’ll just swing around the moon and head off somewhere else. In order to change its speed and trajectory so that we can recapture it into orbiting the Earth, we’ve got to fire the engines soon.
Luckily, because of what we’ve discovered about the spacecraft and its trajectory, we have a lot of margin. We have 150 meters per second of delta-v available to us – which is how much fuel is in this spacecraft. We only need 10 meters per second. I think it’s about 6 to do our first burn. But if we don’t do this burn by middle to late June, it gets almost impossible – there just won’t be enough fuel. It’s not going to come back around here for decades, so we have one shot.
MUO: So the goal is to take control and set it into Earth orbit?
Keith: Yeah. Well, we’re in control of it actually now. The first test before we can fire the engine is to be able to tell it to fire the engine. And, you know, the moment we received the radio-telescope, and once NASA gave us the okay, within minutes we were talking to it.
MUO: That must have been an exciting moment!
Keith: Yeah! If you go to SpaceCollege.org and scroll down you’ll see the video of the happy dance. I did mine with nobody around, but everyone else did theirs in the control room. So – we had to learn how to communicate with it, and then tell it to do something.
We told it to turn on the telemetry transmitters. Now we’re listening to the telemetry, and we’ve discovered that all of the science instruments are on and the spacecraft is in remarkably good condition.
We have to listen further to understand how the propulsion system is doing, because you want to make sure when you fire up the engine you don’t blow it up. Then, we’ll be ready to test the engines in about a week or so. We picked the 17th of June – that’s when the good trajectory starts – if it doesn’t work that day, we’ve got several days margin.
The 17th of June is the day we plan to do our TCM, or Trajectory Correction Maneuver. After that, we’ll be good to go. We have Lunar fly-by on the 10th of August. That’ll be our Apollo 13 moment, because the spacecraft doesn’t have any batteries.
MUO: Right, but you do have power to the instruments right now?
Keith: Right, it’s like those battery powered solar radios you use for camping – if you take the batteries out and put it outside, it works until the Sun goes behind the clouds. The problem is that when you do this flyby of the moon, it’ll be coming in at about 31 miles over the surface.
We’ll be flying around the back and it’s blocking the sun. So, for 20 or 25 minutes – it doesn’t quite shut down, it just turns off. It doesn’t reboot like a computer. It’s like a light bulb – it’s on or it’s off. The processor has hard-wired commands in it.
It’ll shut off and then hopefully it’ll come back on. If that happens, and the spacecraft doesn’t get too cold, we’ll just have to do a couple more burns and then it’ll be in the science orbit that we are looking to put it in.
A Retired Spacecraft as an Educational Tool
MUO: So the plan is to settle into orbit around Earth for good?
Keith: Yes. It’s on a trajectory to fly through the Earth-Moon system, swing around the moon and then fly off somewhere else. We’re gonna bend that trajectory a couple times so that it comes to a big looping orbit, and then we’ll fire the engines again to grab it.
We’ll get it into a final orbit hopefully where we don’t have to monkey with the orbit a lot. And then finally people, with their own hardware and their own ingenuity, can listen to it as well.
MUO: At that point it’ll be used as an educational tool?
Keith: Yeah. We’re looking at it as a citizen science platform, where instead of the data coming back and disappearing for years until some scientist writes a paper, we’re going to put it right up on the website. We have a partner who we will announce shortly, who will help us do that – where it’ll be globally available.
Our view is that if you can spend $10 to help save the spacecraft, you aught to be able to use the data. We’re trying to make it available to as many people as possible, and we’re not going to constrain what people do with the data. If somebody wants to do something with it that we don’t expect, that’s the whole point.
MUO: On your site you mentioned the long term plan was to have it chase a comet?
Keith: That’s an option that Bob Farquhar would like to do. Of course, it’s a NASA spacecraft so there are some other voices as to what will be done with that. The problem with that is that we wouldn’t be able to talk to it for years, other than with a giant radio telescope. Then, all the people who want to listen to it won’t be able to. So my personal preference is that we keep it in an orbit near Earth.
MUO: So there’s still some discussion to be done as far as that goes…
Keith: Yeah, yeah – but that’s sort of like arguing over what you’re going to have for dessert. I’d love to have that argument! I mean we’re talking to the spacecraft, but haven’t fired the engines yet, so it very well could just go, “Hello….Goodbye……”
MUO: What’s the timeline for having it in Earth orbit if everything goes as planned?
Keith: Well, first of all firing the engines on the 17th is the biggie, because then it’s pretty much in the hands of Isaac Newton. Then, after it goes around [the moon] and wakes up, we can fire the engines again and we’re fine. Then, I would say that towards the end of August, we will have a very good idea of its new home, and that’s when all of the utilization and citizen science stuff kicks in.
I’m already starting on that because this spacecraft has been in marvelous condition. Everything that can go right has gone right. It’s working far better than anybody had ever expected – I mean it has been gone since 1978. I was back in college then. That’s kind of cool!
MUO: So when you’re in the educational phase of it, do people go to the Space College website to take part in that?
Keith: Yeah, and it’ll be clear with our new partners – there will be a variety of resources. Hopefully, what Space College will do is aggregate. So if somebody sets up their own page for data, we’ll try and point to it. The idea is to let the data free, and just let people do what they will.
We’re hoping that we will have some communities that will evolve to use this. Hopefully that will be done in a fashion where you don’t have to jump through any hoops to participate, because we don’t think there should be an entrance exam. If you want to explore space, you should be able to do it.
This promises to be a pretty exciting opportunity for folks out there who are interested in creating devices and programs that can listen to this spacecraft and analyze the data coming from it. Remember, to take part in this educational experience once it’s starts, just keep an eye on the Space College website. Keith also told us he keeps his Twitter account updated frequently, so that’s a good place to stay up to speed on the ISEE-3 Reboot project!
What do you think about the ISEE-3 Reboot project? Are you interested in taking part in receiving data from the spacecraft once it enters orbit? Share your thoughts in the comments section below – and if you ask Keith any questions about the project, maybe he’ll answer!
All Images Courtesy of Space College ISEE-3 Reboot Project