Long dead Zombie Satellite wakes up 13 years later


In 2005, a NASA spacecraft named “IMAGE” mysteriously went silent, abruptly ending a successful mission to study Earth’s magnetosphere. Thirteen years later, it’s back. On Jan. 20, 2018, an amateur astronomer in Canada picked up radio transmissions from IMAGE, alive after all. The satellite may have been chattering away at Earth for years unheard and unnoticed. Now NASA is working to regain contact and possibly revive a key asset for space weather research and nowcasting

Amateur astronomer Scott Tilley has a hobby: He hunts spy satellites. Using an S-band radio antenna in Roberts Creek, British Columbia, he regularly scans the skies for radio signals from classified objects orbiting Earth. Since he started 5 years ago, Tilley has bagged dozens of secret or unlisted satellites. “It’s a lot of fun,” he confesses.

Earlier this month, Tilley was hunting for Zuma–a secretive United States government satellite lost in a launch mishap on Jan. 8th–when a J-shaped curve appeared on his computer screen. “It was the signature of a lost satellite,” he says, “but it was not Zuma.”

In a stroke of good luck that has dizzied space scientists, Tilley found IMAGE, a NASA spacecraft that “died” more than 10 years ago.

An artist’s concept of the IMAGE satellite flying over Earth’s north pole.

Short for “Imager for Magnetopause-to-Aurora Global Exploration,” IMAGE was launched in 2000 on a flagship mission to monitor space weather. Mapping the ebb and flow of plasma around Earth, IMAGE was able to watch our planet’s magnetosphere respond almost like a living organism to blasts of solar activity, while its ultraviolet cameras took gorgeous pictures of Earth’s global auroras.

“It had capabilities that no other spacecraft could match–before or since,” says. Patricia Reiff, a member of the original IMAGE science team at Rice University.

IMAGE was in the 5th year of its extended mission on Dec. 18, 2005, when the spacecraft suddenly went silent. No one knows why, although suspicions have focused on a power controller for the spacecraft’s transponder, which might have temporarily failed.

The one hope was a reboot: When IMAGE’s solar-powered batteries drained to zero during a eclipse by the Earth, onboard systems could restart and begin transmitting again. “If revival occurs, the mission should be able to continue as before with no limitations,” noted NASA’s IMAGE Failure Review Board in their 2006 report.

A deep eclipse in 2007, however, failed to produce the desired result. “After that, we stopped listening,” says Reiff.

Radio signals from IMAGE, detected by Scott Tilley on Jan. 20, 2018. [more]

That is, until Scott Tilley started looking for Zuma. “When I saw the radio signature, I ran a program called STRF to identify it,” he says. Developed by Cees Bassa, a professional astronomer at the Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy, STRF treats Earth-orbiting satellites much like binary pulsars–deducing their orbital elements from the Doppler shifts of their radio signals. “The program immediately matched the orbit of the satellite I saw to IMAGE. It was that easy,” says Tilley.

Sometime between 2007 and 2018–no one knows when–IMAGE woke up and started talking. Now, NASA has to find a way to answer.

“The good news is, NASA is working on a recovery plan,” says Reiff. “UC Berkeley still has a ground station that was used for realtime tracking and control. They are scrambling to find the old software and see it they can get the bird to respond. Apparently there are data side lobes on the transmission, so that is a good sign.”

Researchers would love to have IMAGE back. The spacecraft has a unique Big Picture view of Earth’s magnetosphere and “its global-scale auroral imager would be fantastic for nowcasting space weather,” says Reiff. “Fingers crossed!!”

This is a developing story. Stay tuned for updates.

from NASA’s spaceweather.com

104 thoughts on “Long dead Zombie Satellite wakes up 13 years later

    • “IMAGE was in the 5th year of its extended mission on Dec. 18, 2005, when the spacecraft suddenly went silent. No one knows why,”
      I’m not saying it was Aliens.
      but it was Aliens.

      • ROFL, maybe it was. We know they are real since the military released their videos of fighters chasing UFOs

  1. loose connection / dry solder joint ?
    maybe something just whizzed by and shook it up a little.
    I wish I`d been in on the phone call to NASA, `I`m not a professional but guess what I`ve got . . . .`

    • Most likely a SW bug that locked it up and over the years, the batteries weakened and/or the solar cells were not properly aligned to the Sun and eventually the required reboot occurred during a period of relative darkness.
      If the GISS ModelE is representative of SW written by NASA, bugs are inevitable.

      • … bugs are inevitable.

        Any moderately complicated software will have bugs. It’s a matter of planning for something that you can’t predict. It’s complicated.
        I wouldn’t tar all of NASA with the same brush. Given the cost of putting a satellite into orbit, the industry is very conservative and has a rather good record. In fact, the reliability of satellite communication systems is quite a bit better than that for terrestrial systems. link

      • I’ve been involved in the testing of satellite code. It’s comparable to the type of testing required by the FAA for flight software.

      • Anybody doubting that all software has at least some bugs (even NASA’s) is deluded.
        Not only do you have the fidelity problem of translating specifications into code, you also have a changing operational environment (different telecommunications technologies).

    • I’m guessing somebody at NASA kicked out the plug while rushing to deliver some Muslim outreach.

    • Maybe the NASA money went into stuff like “muslim outreach” and a room above a coffee shop (or was it a deli?) rather than what this guy did on his own?
      (“this guy”, good job.)

    • I would laugh if it weren’t so damn depressingly true. Just toss it out the window we can print more.

    • How long should NASA continue attempting to communicate with dead satellites?
      As you say, money isn’t unlimited.

      • After NASA designs, build, launches and operates the satellite for 5 years, how much can it cost to listen periodically to see if it’s back on? $100?
        How much did the amateur spend discovering the signal? Less than $100?

  2. Ok, should definitely not get to do this, but hey for the best or worst I happen not to be an American, but still I think I can pose this, probably silly non sensical Question, as in the expectation of being explained about, as the host of this website happens to be an American…and I up to some point, have being exposed to far spread info with a proper American flavor….if it could be put this way …
    And if any one here can help with this question, I will appreciated…
    Who or what is Q, or Qanon, and what is about the info about this Q thingy??
    Sorry got to ask this, even when maybe this happens to be off topic and not allowed here.
    So what is this thing there in your USA about this kind of info???
    Do forgive Anthony if I am asking such questions, that could really be out and beyond the topic here.

    • Whiten…………..you are way off topic.
      Suiggest go to 8chan and query.

      • kokoda – AZEK (Deck Boards) doesn’t stand behind its product.
        Whiten…………..you are way off topic.
        Ok, kokoda, but lets see if there is any key points in this info…to consider as a way for a probable or possible in topic discussion..
        Q, Sky Fortress, Zuma payload, hunt for it, zomby satellite found “alive” , Wayback machine in digital internet data, maybe wayback machine in supposed lost or dead satellites….(strange, silly, maybe even crazy, but somehow not so out off topic, if you ask me, when the USA info made considered)…
        Just saying, when still one main key may also be contemplated, coincidence, or time stamps…!!!
        Again just saying…
        kokoda I am not an American, are you?

    • Whiten
      Given your topic, people are either going to strongly believe or disbelieve (like the JFK grassy knoll.
      About 0.05% of the population will care about it, 5% of those who have even heard about it will simply snicker, and everybody else could care less.
      Probably not a bad idea to take this to a more “specialized” sandbox.

    • Is it true that the Black Knight disappears and re-appears?
      I have never seen a really good photo of it. Why are there not 1000 from each country capable of putting a camera in orbit?

  3. Is there a reward for finding such satellites? Maybe he should be allowed to claim it for himself, a bit like unmanned ships found drifting on the great ocean without captain or crew (though I don’t know if that is, or ever was, true).

  4. ? “Long dead zombie satellite wakes up 6 months later (isn’t recognized for another 12 years)”?
    ??? “NASA satellite claimed to be dead is found out to be conscripted for other purposes” ???
    (the second one is way the hell out there, but it would be more interesting)

    • “Long dead zombie satellite wakes up but nobody notices for 13 years”
      There might be hope for Michael Mann’s conscience yet!

    • I’m reasonably certain the story is true as presented, but I’ve conceived of a highly unlikely alternate explanation.
      It’s a switcheroo. The secretive “missing” Zuma spy satellite was programmed to spoof the zombie satellite IMAGE and launched in a matching orbit, so if it was ever discovered, it would be misidentified. If enough time had passed, no one would ever suspect a connection between the two satellites.
      Sure, it’s an insane and paranoid idea, but it’s fun to imagine our secret agencies having such complicated schemes. And then some hobbyist astronomer accidentally uncovering the plot early.

      • Something don’t fit. Is no one in the Guv’ment looking for “secret unlisted satellites”? If they are and they missed this there is a big security problem. If not … there is a big security problem

  5. This is fake news.
    Everyone knows that it takes a large team of highly skilled and qualified scientists, who have years of education behind them and who publish extensively quadruple-checked peer reviewed material to get stuff like this done.
    An uneducated, unpublished amateur? Pure Russian misinformation…

  6. Wow! Somebody in Roberts Creek has a computer? Not what I would expect from the back to nature, hippie crowd. 🙂

  7. Hmmm…. It will be interesting to see if NASA and or the contractors kept the data for the vehicle, the software and the hardware to talk to it.
    That was our biggest problem with the ISEE-3 Reboot project and they knew the bird was coming back.

  8. On one of my LEO spacecraft, the primary nadir transponder died. Luckily, the zenith transponder was cross strapped into the receiver. NASA spent two years broadcasting out the zenith antenna and using a huge DSN antenna to pick up the tiny signal scattered from the solar arrays. They could reconfigure the system, but were scared the reconfiguration would fail. Finally they agreed to throw the crosslink switch and connect the zenith transponder to the nadir antenna. Problem fixed.
    On another program, our primary processor failed after one year. We tried several times to diagnose the problem without success. After eight more years running on the backup, a single event upset sent us back to the prime processor which came up working perfectly. Go figure.

    • Scared ?? No doubt the carefully thought out operational manual said:
      1. Wait and be scared for 703 days.
      2. then throw the switch.
      What kind of idiotic engineering and planning is this? I thought they were professionals.

      • It is common risk management. There is always a chance a mechanical waveguide switch can get stuck in-between detents. If it is then stuck. you’re hosed. Just engineering caution when their is no-way to send a human to the machine to give in a whack.
        Same thing on the Hubble Telescope with the Primary Mirror door/cover. If they close it for some reason (like for a service mission as the maneuvering shuttle approached, then there is always a chance, even if small that it will not re-open fully. When the last STS service mission finished with Hubble repairs, the shuttle stayed nearby, while ground controllers re-opened the door, ready to return in case it got stuck short of full-open.

      • They had a situation where they could use the satellite via the DSN array. Expensive, probably tough to schedule, but it worked. Switching to the nadir antenna could work, or perhaps there was a failure in it that would kill the the only other transponder.
        A bird in the hand is (sometimes) worth two in the bush.
        There was no way to tell beforehand what the outcome would be. I imagine the first rule of dealing with failing satellites is “Don’t break what we have.” The second rule is probably from IBM – “Think.”

  9. I was thinking of standing outside NASA headquarters and blinking a Morse code message about the brainless folly of AGW but I don’t have 13 years to spare.

  10. Finding lost stuff is pure profit. There’s lost stuff everywhere, not just “treasure” but lost BTUs in power plants, lost time driving on roads, lost recipes, lost Bitcoins, lost knowledge, all sorts of stuff. There should be a Department of Lost Stuff.

  11. This is a great time to have the satellite back for the solar minimum and beyond, hopefully.
    I think some climate change research funds should be diverted to replacing and upgrading our magnetosphere monitoring hardware.

  12. As for Zuma and trying to find a LO – Stealth platform:
    The biggest limitation now with spay satellites is they are big and easily tracked by adversaries to know when to hide their activities from a satellite pass. Nork Korea and Iran certainly are certainly getting satellite passage data from China and/or Russia to help hide their missile and nuclear development activites. They know when certain satellites will be overhead. How do you overcome that? Stealth satellites that can manuever every now and then, and use stealthy comms for downlinks.
    Furthermore, one can make a LEO satellite with extremely low visible, IR, and radar signatures, but there is of course no way to mask the launch of a large satellite from a a national launch site. Solution: declare the satellite “lost at launch”, then quickly maneuver it to new orbital parameters just after the last booster burns out to foil tracking by Russians, China, and amateurs.
    And if you are going to build a multi-billion dollar stealth spy satellite and put it in orbit, is certain that its command radio links and datalinks are stealthy too. Possibly cross-fed using laser-links and/or SHF/mmW frequencies and spread spectrums modulations not readily observable from Earth to other in-orbit satellites then downlinked to Earth using laser-links or frequencies and spectrums not readily observable from Earth.
    None of what I have written is certainly new ideas to the Russians or Chinese. We have stealth submarines, stealth destroyers, stealth helicopters, stealth bombers, stealth fighters, stealth drones, so the extension of LO-stealth to space and spy satellites has of course long been expected by every analyst observation for a dozen years..

    • There are some who have stealth emails and stealth text messages! They were launched but then disappeared.

    • The problem, of course, is that “stealth” in space isn’t a thing, as anyone w/a passing familiarity w/spaceflight knows. ^_^
      Radar can track objects measuring cms or less in length many hundreds of km up, IR can detect heat signatures fractions of a degree above the background of space for thousands of km, and any broadcast from such a satellite is by definition “unstealthy” because it has to be heard on the ground to be of any use in the first place… none of which even addresses the fact that a satellite in sunlight is as unstealthy as it gets thanks to the reflected/reradiated light & heat.
      Orbital mechanics is especially problematic, because even w/out prior knowledge of a launch one can use the initial launch track combined w/knowledge of the launch vehicle to pin down not only the precise location of any spacecraft deployed through its first several orbits, but also how much it masses… which in turn lets you guess-timate just how many & of what magnitude of orbital changes said bird is capable. That & the sheer amount of energy needed to change orbits appreciably in & around Earth’s gravity well SEVERELY limits just how much of a surprise any follow-on orbit can be, to say nothing of the fact that any course change = an exhaust plume of some form or other = really not stealthy, especially in IR.
      This core reason — that “stealth” is just not much of a thing in space — is why amateurs are routinely able to not only find “classified” satellites (even the ones able to change orbits), but also to guess at the missions & capabilities of said birds as well. It’s exactly why this guy in particular thought he had any chance at all of seeing Zuma in the first place, and is precisely why all the “mystery” around Zuma’s fate is only a matter of theater for the uneducated public: anyone w/a “need to know” regarding Zuma already does!
      (Sorry to blow it for fans of The Expanse, e.g., but while that stealth tech is fun to imagine & makes for a nifty plot device, it’s really just not plausible in any way.)

      • Incidentally, this is what also leads me to believe that the original Zuma story was never one of international espionage & misdirection, but rather one of business intrigue & market positioning:
        Since any nation w/even half-competent tech knows what happened already, who really benefits from the story beyond those who compete w/Space X &/or Northrop Grumman?

  13. What altitude was this satellite at? To still be in orbit after about 18 years makes me think geo-synchronous. Definitely far enough away not to be pulled in by earth’s gravity.

    • Rather, the satellite orbit needs to be high enough to stay well above the lingering drag of the earth’s atmosphere, but would it not have to be below the earth’s geosynchronous orbit if it is to survey the planet surface? If geosyn’ed, it could only look at 25% some-odd of the surface. That survey (out to the edges of the surface would be blurred and indistinct) would be thorough, but limited in area.

    • Vanguard 1 was launched in 1958, and it’s still up there. Lowest point in orbit is 408 miles, high point is around 2400 miles, so you don’t have to be geosynchronous (around 23,000) to stay aloft. Wikipedia says the magnetopause is around 40,000 miles, tho, so IMAGE is probably up a ways.

  14. Joel O’Bryan
    “January 26, 2018 at 4:45 pm
    As for Zuma and trying to find a LO – Stealth platform:–”
    Anyone interested in the history of “stealth” technology and its effect on international events and relations during the cold war and beyond should read “Skunk Works” by Ben R. Rich. He was the operations head of the highly secret Lockheed unit for almost two decades that developed our “stealth” fighter and had previously developed the U-2 and Blackbird spy planes.
    He wrote this shortly before he passed away with co-author Leo Janos (co-author of “Yeager”) and reveals information that has been previously declassified. He discusses in depth the advantage of “spy” planes over satellites in terms of the enemy anticipating over flights, with the obvious disadvantage of having a human pilot that could be shot down, i.e. Gary Powers.
    After reading this, it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to figure this reality is still the case. Anyone who wants a realistic view of the world of nuclear weapons and how nations defend themselves against them should read this book. It’s also a good read. I couldn’t put it down!

    • I also recommend “Blackbird” by Ben Rich. He was the number 2 for years under Kelly, the main brain behind nearly every innovation in aviation from the F104 to the SR71 and first stealth fighter.
      I was so impressed when I finished I immediately read it again from cover to cover. It has a great way to learn how to do cutting edge R&D on a budget – something I am often forced to do by circumstances.
      Ben said that we will not use chemistry to go to Mars, we will use a different type of drive system and he had already seen it working. He said many other things of interest. Ben, who was an engineer, invented the extensible conical entrance to the SR71 engines that intake 100,000 cu ft of air per second, creating a sonic boom inside the entrance of the engine, whatever the supersonic speed, that provides about 65% of the thrust. Sheer genius.

  15. “It had capabilities that no other spacecraft could match–before or since,”…
    …“After that, we stopped listening,” says Reiff….

    • How long do you continue to pay for a ground station that is trying to contact a satellite that is probably dead?

      • Maybe one station to periodically search for lost birds based on eclipse events for the particular satellite.
        It appears that the batteries are holding up better than expected on most of this stuff. It might take some age on the battery before it goes completely dead during a solar eclipse and re-powers the system afterwards.

  16. “…Apparently there are data side lobes on the transmission, so that is a good sign.”
    Scuse my ignorance, but what is a ‘data side lobe’?

    • A radio carrier is typically a pure tone, a “bandwidth” of zero. For it to carry some information, it needs to use more than just the carrier frequency. For AM radio, which is easy to generate and decode, the signal winds up using the carrier +/- the highest frequency of the sound being transmitted. In the US that’s limited to a bandwidth under 5 kHz.
      In this case, people looking at the radio signal saw the carrier (so the transmitter is on) and other frequencies (hopefully real data).

  17. Seems clear to me. Alien intervention is more than obvious. Once decoded the new message will be “All your satellites are belong to us.” Prolly the same guys who built the pyramids.

  18. You would think that for a mission that exceeds well over 100 million, that due diligence would require at the very least, NASA purchase a 200 dollar laptop, freeware software, a cheap SDR unit and a coat hanger for antennae, to monitor for possible future IMAGE transmissions, especially since the investigation and final report of its failure stated that the satellite could come back to life at some future date.

  19. One thing I don’t quite get.
    Would it be too much weight to add a monitoring chipset with CMOS memory which could externally reboot the system when communications have failed? Maybe I don’t have enough grasp of the technology, but that seems to be better than waiting for battery depletion for a reboot.

  20. Flight of the Navigator: “A 12-year-old boy goes missing in 1978, only to reappear once more in 1986. In the eight years that have passed, he hasn’t aged. It is no coincidence that at the time he “comes back”, a flying saucer is found, entangled in power lines.” (from IMDB)

  21. Amateur science is alive and well! Some of the best scientists in history were amateurs (hobbyists): Newton, Lavoisier, Benjamin Franklin, Joule, Heaviside, Tsiolkovsky, Wright Bros. Einstein
    Here’s top 10 discoveries made by amateur astronomers
    My favorite amateur is the 13-year old boy from Quebec who discovered the alignments of ancient Mayan cities to the stars in the constellation by just surfing the internet in his bedroom. The experts are skeptical but verdict is still out there

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