Launched in 2000, NASA’s IMAGE (Imager for Magnetopause-to-Aurora Global Exploration) satellite was tasked with studying how Earth’s magnetosphere was affected by the solar wind, imaging plasma streams in the planet’s atmosphere from an orbit that took it 28,000 miles (45,000 kilometers) above the North Pole. NASA considered IMAGE’s initial two-year mission a success, and had approved it for a mission extension that would last until 2010, but in December 2005, the spacecraft went silent, and the space agency declared the satellite lost.
Twelve years later, amateur Canadian radio astronomer Scott Tilley intercepted signals being transmitted from the previously-dark IMAGE satellite. One of Tilley’s hobbies is snooping for signals from spy satellites, and on January 20 he was searching for signals that might be coming from the top-secret Zuma satellite, lost shortly after its launch aboard one of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 FT rockets 12 days beforehand. Former IMAGE team members quickly picked up on the news, and scrambled to confirm that IMAGE had resumed transmitting.
On January 30, NASA confirmed that IMAGE was indeed transmitting, having received some "basic housekeeping data," indicating that the main control system is working. The spacecraft’s 2005 failure was theorized to have been caused by a misfire of the controller providing power to the satellite’s transponder, but there was the possibility that the satellite could, at some point, reset itself when its batteries drained when its orbit took it into the Earth’s shadow.
If IMAGE’s instruments are still working, that means that the satellite could be put back to work, studying the magnetosphere’s relationship to the solar wind. One of the original IMAGE team members, space plasma physicist Patricia Reiff says that, "It is really invaluable for now-casting space weather and really understanding the global response of the magnetosphere to solar storms."
- This perspective view of the IMAGE observatory shows an octagonal shape spacecraft covered with arrays of dual-junction, high-efficiency gallium-arsenide solar cells. Wikimedia Commons
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