$150m NASA satellite left for dead is actually still alive

29 Jan 2018

Image: Vadim Sadovski/Shutterstock

A NASA satellite once thought doomed in orbit has been discovered alive and well, thanks to an amateur astronomer.

Last week (26 January), NASA emitted a huge sigh of relief after finding out its latest instrument was not lost when a commercial rocket taking it into orbit went radio silent for an uncomfortable few hours.

But not everything in space can go according to plan, as NASA found out following the launch of its $150m satellite Imager for Magnetopause-to-Aurora Global Exploration (IMAGE) in 2000, which suddenly went dead in December 2005.

The satellite was launched to study and capture images of charged particles in Earth’s magnetic field and, for the time it was running, provided very useful scientific information.

So it was surprising news to discover that an amateur astronomer searching for radio signals in orbit has confirmed that IMAGE is not dead, but is in fact still alive.

According to Science, astronomer Scott Tilley spends his spare time searching the airwaves for secret government satellites and was, in this instance, searching for signals from the top secret craft codenamed Zuma, which launched earlier this month.

When he picked up a signal labelled “2000-017A”, he searched through the records and found that that identifier was given to the IMAGE satellite. Thus, its demise was proven incorrect.

Could provide valuable information

After Tilley published his findings in a blog post, members of IMAGE’s old team began hearing the news and now think that not only is IMAGE still communicating, but its six instruments could still be working.

But, before the team gets their hopes up, they are now trying to source all of the equipment and software necessary to operate IMAGE – especially given the somewhat puzzling fact that its rotation has slowed, making it that bit harder to communicate with.

If it is brought back online, IMAGE could provide invaluable information as, since its radio silence in 2005, no other satellite like it exists in orbit.

IMAGE’s original co-investigator Patricia Reiff said that, if reactivated, IMAGE will be manoeuvred into an orbit over our planet’s northern auroral zone.

“It is really invaluable for now-casting space weather and really understanding the global response of the magnetosphere to solar storms,” she said.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic