NASA satellite brought back from dead will need major reverse engineering

1 Feb 2018

The IMAGE spacecraft undergoing launch preparations in early 2000. Image: NASA

With help from an amateur astronomer, NASA suddenly found itself with an extra satellite in orbit, and the data is now being recovered.

Lucky breaks are few and far between in the space business, but NASA has just received one with the official confirmation that its Imager for Magnetopause-to-Aurora Global Exploration (IMAGE) satellite, which was considered lost, is indeed still alive.

Just a few days ago (30 January), news came through that amateur astronomer Scott Tilley had found a radio signal with the identifier of the $150m IMAGE satellite.

This was despite the fact NASA had left it for dead when it went radio silent back in 2005 after five years of operations to study and capture images of charged particles in Earth’s magnetic field.

Not wanting to rely on the word of one astronomer, NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center coordinated the use of five separate antennas to acquire radio frequency signals from the object, all of which showed signals consistent with IMAGE.

Then, the following day, NASA realised it had a potential winner on its hands after it successfully collected telemetry data from the satellite in addition to other ‘housekeeping’ data, suggesting that the main control system, at least, is operational.

A lot of work to do

With this newfound hope, the agency’s scientists and engineers will continue to try to analyse the data from the spacecraft to learn more about it over the coming weeks.

This includes trying to adapt old software and databases of information to more modern systems.

In fact, the real challenge is that the types of hardware and operating systems used in the IMAGE Mission Operations Center no longer exist, while other systems have been updated several versions beyond what they were at the time, requiring significant reverse engineering.

If data decoding is successful, NASA said, it will seek to switch back on the scientific payload to see how the various instruments are working and whether it can be put back into use.

Its discovery was somewhat remarkable because Tilley had no intention of trying to find a satellite lost for more than a decade; he had in fact been searching for the top-secret satellite codenamed Zuma launched in the beginning of January.

Speaking to The Washington Post, Tilley said his curiosity for what’s going on above our heads should be a matter of public interest.

“Space is not owned by anybody,” he said. “Anybody should be able to look up and know those little dots moving across the night sky are not bombs.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic