NASA gives control of Explorer 3 spacecraft to citizen scientists

23 May 2014

The Explorer 3 spacecraft

US space agency NASA has allowed a group of citizen scientists to breathe new scientific life into its Explorer 3 spacecraft, including providing the group with almost total control of the spacecraft.

NASA has signed a non-reimbursable space act agreement (NRSAA) with the group, known as Skycorp, allowing the company to attempt to contact, and possibly command and control the craft as part of the company’s ISEE-3 Reboot Project.

This landmark decision will be first time NASA has worked out such an agreement for the use of a spacecraft the agency is no longer using or ever planned to use again.

Launched in 1978 to study the flow of solar wind streaming toward Earth, ISEE-3 successfully completed its prime mission in 1981. With remaining fuel and functioning instruments, it then was redirected to observe two comets.

Following the completion of that mission, the spacecraft continued to orbit around the sun. It is now making its closest approach to Earth in more than 30 years.

Skycorp now hopes to put Explorer 3 into an orbit at in a gravitationally stable point between Earth and the sun known as Lagrangian 1 (L1). Once safely back in orbit, the next step would be to return the spacecraft to operations and use its instruments as they had originally been designed.

John Grunsfeld, astronaut and associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA, said the agreement was a brilliant opportunity to engage more citizen scientists with space exploration and study.

“The intrepid ISEE-3 spacecraft was sent away from its primary mission to study the physics of the solar wind, extending its mission of discovery to study two comets.

“We have a chance to engage a new generation of citizen scientists through this creative effort to recapture the ISEE-3 spacecraft as it zips by the Earth this summer.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic