Thirty years ago, having your own mobile phone or computer was a rarity, and was considered to be the ultimate in technological sophistication. Now it is far more rare to find an individual who does not possess some form of hi-tech device, and even our "silver-surfing" grandparents are techno-savvy.
So in these technologically advanced times, where does the technophile go for their next techno-fix?
It seems that when you have exhausted all of the technology that the earth can offer, you look to the skies: a small team of techys in Mountain View, California, has made history by running a crowdfunded mission to take control of an old NASA satellite.
The newly re-adopted satellite is an ISEE-3 disco-era satellite that was previously used to monitor space weather like solar wind and radiation; it was de-commissioned years ago but has now been reactivated and brought back to life by the unlikely band of amateur space researchers.
The team does carry a reasonable weight of professional expertise, however; it is led by Mr. Cowing, a former NASA employee who now runs a handful of space news sites, including NASA Watch and SpaceRef. The idea to resurrect the old space hardware came to him as he studied the night sky with an old space buddy, Bob Farquhar. Farquhar was a veteran NASA researcher who had worked with ISEE-3 in its hey-day, and knew what it would take to bring the satellite out of retirement.
In reality, the operation proved to be far from hi-tech: the team's headquarters is an abandoned MacDonalds building near Ames Research Center in Mountain View, now aptly christened "McMoon's," , and in space terms, the satellite is old and out-dated. Many of its components are now obsolete and, incredibly, it has been re-activated using old radio parts from eBay and a salvaged flat screen TV.
“If I could come up with another absurd detail, I would,” quipped Keith Cowing, the project’s team leader. “There were a few abandoned buildings—one was a barbershop, and one was an abandoned McDonald’s,” Mr. Cowing said. “Someone hit the barbershop with a truck, so we took the McDonald’s.”
Though an unlikely "mission control," “McMoon’s” fulfilled all of the basic criteria they needed: the doors locked, and it was free. For their console, they pulled a broken flatscreen TV from a government dumpster and fixed the power supply. The other pieces are from eBay, including a Mac laptop and some radio parts.
Though its battery had died decades ago, he satellite still possessed solar panels which could produce enough power to control up to 98 per cent of its requirements. Its old-style technology was simple and built to last, so the old ex-NASA boys thought it would be a relatively straightforward job to get it up and running again. Within a fortnight, they had orchestrated a crowdfunded campaign that had managed to raise an impressive $160,000, allowing them to send a small team to the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico to run tests and position a transmitter ready to make contact with the elderly satellite.
Now the team have made contact with the satellite, they have established it on a new course around the sun, which will keep it close to Earth for the foreseeable future so that tests can be conducted to assess its potential.
It isn't yet known how long the lifespan of the re-incarnated ISEE-3 will be, but it is hoped that it will continue for many years to come:
“No idea,” Mr. Cowing said. “It’s been on for 36 years, so another 36? Nobody knows. A long time.”
The solar weather data collected by the cosmic old-timer was once the property of NASA, who would not release it into the public domain until it had been thoroughly analyzed. Now, the information will be available for all to see.
“We’re allowing anybody who is interested and has a computer to be able to do something with the data,” Mr. Cowing said.
So what do NASA think of this civilian enterprise to revive one of their old pieces of space junk?
As there was no precedent on which to base an opinion, NASA decided to give the team their blessing, and asked them if they needed any help.
The giant technology company, Google, have also assisted the team by building a site entitled "Spacecraft for All", enabling the data to be accessed by anyone in the world. It is hoped that having a multitude of eyes and opinions cast upon the records could provide an additional perspective that may have been overlooked when the measurements were merely analyzed by small team of NASA researchers.
“Space people have a sort of arrogance,” Mr. Cowing said. “I used to be that way, but now I’m revolted by the thought that people without a pocket protector and calculator feel like they can’t be involved.”
There must be tons of outdated space-junk littering our immediate neighborhood of space; does this mean that anyone with the necessary know-how could adopt these cosmic cast-offs and utilise their capabilities? Is this a positive step, or are there security issues to consider?
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