NASA confirms left for dead “zombie satellite” as being alive

The identity of the satellite re-discovered on Jan. 20, 2018, has been confirmed as NASA’s IMAGE satellite.

After an amateur astronomer recorded observations of a satellite in high Earth orbit on Jan. 20, 2018, his initial research suggested it was the Imager for Magnetopause-to-Aurora Global Exploration (IMAGE) — a NASA mission launched into orbit around Earth on March 25, 2000.

Seeking to ascertain whether the signal indeed came from IMAGE, NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, coordinated the use of five separate antennas to acquire radio frequency signals from the object.

As of Monday, Jan. 29, observations from all five sites were consistent with the radio frequency characteristics expected of IMAGE. Specifically, the radio frequency showed a spike at the expected center frequency, as well as side bands where they should be for IMAGE. Oscillation of the signal was also consistent with the last known spin rate for IMAGE.

On the afternoon of Jan. 30, the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab in Laurel, Maryland, successfully collected telemetry data from the satellite. The signal showed that the space craft ID was 166 — the ID for IMAGE.

The NASA team has been able to read some basic housekeeping data from the spacecraft, suggesting that at least the main control system is operational.

Scientists and engineers at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, will continue to try to analyze the data from the spacecraft to learn more about the state of the spacecraft. This process will take a week or two to complete as it requires attempting to adapt old software and databases of information to more modern systems.

NASA will next attempt to capture and analyze data from the signal. The challenge to decoding the signal is primarily technical. The types of hardware and operating systems used in the IMAGE Mission Operations Center no longer exist, and other systems have been updated several versions beyond what they were at the time, requiring significant reverse-engineering.

If data decoding is successful, NASA will seek to turn on the science payload — currently turned off — to understand the status of the various science instruments. Pending the outcome of these activities, NASA will decide on how to proceed.

IMAGE was designed to image Earth’s magnetosphere and produce the first comprehensive global images of the plasma populations in this region. After successfully completing and extending its initial two-year mission in 2002, the satellite unexpectedly failed to make contact on a routine pass on Dec. 18, 2005. After a 2007 eclipse failed to induce a reboot, the mission was declared over.

For the IMAGE mission webpage: https://image.gsfc.nasa.gov/

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62 thoughts on “NASA confirms left for dead “zombie satellite” as being alive

    • Why home in on “compensation” immediately – this amateur astronomer is probably extremely happy and satisfied just having his name recorded – and, perhaps, a nice letter that he can frame.

      • He probably would be happy with just recognition but, since something useful was done, why not just send him Gavin Schmidt’s salary and permanently shut off that useless zombie.

  1. Kinda like ‘Star Trek – The Motion Picture’. The lost satellite has been trying to communicate with NASA but they couldn’t even ‘hear it’ because they had stopped listening. A super sleuth amateur hunted it up and convinced NASA to listen again. Alas, they had thrown away all of the old dedicated communication equipment, causing delay while they examine the old program documents and determine how to adapt the modern equipment and software.

    The prodigal satellite returned home but the Creator has forgotten how to communicate with it.

    • My WAG would be that it will be easier to create the system than it was originally. Over the years the amount of hardware in a given system has decreased. The function of the hardware is replaced with software. The remaining hardware is pretty generic. The whole thing is called software defined radio. link What would have occupied a couple of thousand square feet when I was a pup is now contained in your smart phone.

      • You are correct commieBob. I just made a comment below (in moderation at the moment) explaining the difficulties in resurrecting a (very old) compute environment. Act now, start capturing the data stream, and decode at your convenience. Don’t know why I landed in moderation, but I guess it’s not unusual.

      • Mods, I hate to imposition, but could you change “Chuck Scanland” to “Chuck in Houston”? The veil has fallen.

  2. The irony here is rich. But also sad. If the original mission life was two years and was exceeded when the sat shut down, NASA was fully justified stopping listening.

    • Rud, the irony is that the battery must have exceeded projected performance, delaying the power depletion/restoration reboot cycle for an unknown number of solar eclipses. Once the batteries were finally fully depleted during a cyclical eclipse (presumably due the their age), the OS rebooted, apparently normally. I wonder how many time the IMAGE has rebooted now as it ages and experiences solar deprivations.

      • As I said previously on this satellite, it might have been prudent to include an auto-reboot any time communication is lost instead of waiting for power depletion and subsequent restoration during orbital phases.

    • NASA should stop collecting usable data just because the expected life of the satellite has been reached?

      • No, that’s not what he said. He said that the mission exceeded its expected life, NASA continued to collect data, but once the blackout occurred then they were perfectly justified pulling the plug.

  3. Better call up some of the retired guys still surviving. Aw, come on, at least take them out to lunch and get some pointers on the OS and data formatting. Can’t be that battering to your youthful egos, can it?

  4. Why> I remember many a cold lonely night with my 200 power telescope, its a way to show your diligence and dedication is of value.
    A modest reward even if its just a plaque to show what this person did sets him apart.

    • Mike, I second your motion.

      btw, I note that your comment was posted at 6:58PM. Does that infer that you are still confined to the dark?

  5. I thought the Government never threw anything away (unless it is a Hillary related laptop!). There should be copies of the software somewhere in the archives. Perhaps a FOIA request will get results under a court order. [Tongue-in-cheek(y)]

    • There may well be copies of the software around. But this system was put together in the 1990s. It’s ground station stuff might be minicomputer based rather than microcomputer. And there may have been custom ground station hardware that has been scrapped or cannibalized. And I wouldn’t bet on the archive copies of the software being readable without a few errors. And did anyone think to archive the OS version used by the ground station. And the compiler(s). If it’s on tape, is there a working tape drive that’ll read it?

      I think NASA can probably get a full capability ground station working if the satellite is working well enough to justify the effort, but I wouldn’t bet on it being a trivial undertaking.

      • It’s awesomely difficult to revive an IT system put down over ten years back. These people are extremely competent, so I trust they can solve the riddle.

      • I’ve been involved in recovering systems that are only a few years old and all of the equipment and software is available.
        What often happens is that the system has to be installed in a certain sequence. Something that was common knowledge for the team that did the original work, so they didn’t bother to write it down.
        Or somebody tweaked a particular system parameter for better performance, and didn’t take the time to write it down.
        Resurrecting these old systems is doable, but rarely easy.

      • What Don K and MarkW said. It’s likely that the ground systems were based on something like PDP-11’s or even VAX systems. Even by today’s standards, these could be extremely complex and nuanced – from microcode revisions to OS patches. Even if you could come up with the hardware (Hey, Boston Computer Museum, could we borrow that?) and had the code (C or Fortran) the chances you could still compile and get it to run is iffy at best.

        I apologize but I can’t find the comment from someone who wrote that the smart move would be to come up with a new system and at least start capturing the data stream. Get that to disk and then you can sit back and deal with the actual data. This option I think is the easiest and safest.

        I started my career doing VAX/VMS and RSTS admin stuff, From an IT standpoint, it was pretty slick back in the day. Trying to recreate one of those old environments would be a fools errand, I’m afraid.

        Those who comment that all we have to do is go back to the archives and restore the systems do not quite grasp the difficulties.

        Chuck, still in Houston (but I was with DEC, in Mass. in the 80s)

      • “These people are extremely competent”

        The techies, yes. The bigshots, no. NASA’s astronaut-killing disasters were management’s fault, in large part. And their “losing” the moonwalk video tapes takes the cake.

  6. Was the OS proprietary to this project? Does anybody here know? That might make a few folks very valuable, who know where to look in the dusty bins of NASA history.

    • I bet these guys got some specs:

      ‘The IMAGE spacecraft was built by Lockheed Martin Missiles & Space (LMMS) of Sunnyvale, California. ‘

      • Good point, but, often, the ground station is not provided by the folks providing the spacecraft. You know, spread the contracts around to as many Congressional districts as possible.

  7. Wouldn’t surprise me if it got switched-off from Mission-Control ‘cos it wasn’t yielding the AGW answers the Alarmists wanted.

  8. Wouldn’t surprise me if it got switched-off from Mission-Control ‘cos it wasn’t yielding the AGW answers the Alarmists wanted.

  9. So they didn’t think to keep a backup as standard procedure for a lost satellite?….. These people have no F’ukin’ imagination despite all the taxpayer dollars they consume….. No, really. They don’t. Don’t defend them.

    • It’s more than just keeping a backup, there’s also maintaining the backup.

      For example, files I backed up to DECtape at CMU I could no longer read when I left DEC. I might have a copy on a 800 bpi magtape, but 6450 bpi became the standard. I could have put them on an 8 inch floppy, but those got replaced by 5.25″ floppies, I threw out a bunch of the hard sector floppies that I used with my HeathKit H89 C/PM system. Ditto a later C/PM system with a 5 Mhz Z80 and a SASI 10 MB disk. I haven’t read an old disk drive in ages. I do have a 64 MB USB memory stick that goes back to their early days, I figure as long as I don’t write to it much it’s good for quite a while longer.

      BTW, do you have a working 4mm tape drive? NASA was looking for one.

  10. So how often do people upgrade their computers? I have one that about 17 years old and still runs its old software fine. I have kept it as some of the software won’t run on new computers.

  11. Trying to read between the lines, it sounds like the satellite is tumbling. It would appear that unless they can get the attitude control back online, it will end up being strictly an interesting find.

  12. I read an article recently that said one reason that NASA didn’t return to the moon is that nobody documented how to fire up the Saturn rocket. So when all the original engineers retired, they lost this knowledge,and now nobody knows how to do it.
    If we ever want to go back to the moon, they will have to rebuild the program from scratch. Or ask the aliens to help.

  13. Still using a 2003 Windows XP system. Works fine. George R.R. Martin uses a computer that runs on MS-DOS, with Wordstar as his WP software.

    Never throw away those old code books and schematics. They might come in handy some day.

    The Voyagers weren’t supposed to last as long as they have, but NASA has people still listening to them.

    • Of all our space adventures, the one that leaves me most awestruck are the Voyager missions.
      A pity we have lost that spirit.

  14. This has good information about the recovery.

    https://www.nasa.gov/feature/goddard/2018/a-detailed-timeline-of-the-image-mission-recovery

    A couple entries:

    Saturday, Jan. 27
    9:28 am EST – Notifying the team that the five antennae have agreed on basic radio frequency characteristics of the object, Burley sets the next goal: to read data from the spacecraft.

    “Once we successfully capture data, we need the tools to examine the data in order to verify with certainty that it is IMAGE,” Burley writes in an email. “The definitive proof of identity requires reading the data, which will contain IMAGE’s unique [NASA-internal] spacecraft ID number: 166. Until this is done, although the evidence may be strong, we cannot be certain that the spacecraft is in fact IMAGE.”

    The challenge for doing so is primarily technical. “The hardware and operating systems that we used back in the day no longer exist,” Burley explains. “The FEDS/ASIST systems still exist and are in use on other missions, but they have been re-hosted, moved from AIX to Linux, and are about a dozen versions ahead of what we used on IMAGE. I’m certain that we’ll run into some compatibility issues.”

    Burley adds a closing question: “Does anyone happen to have a 4 mm tape cartridge reader that will work on a modern Linux workstation and a 16-year-old data tape and not disintegrate it?”


    Thursday, Feb. 1

    12:40 pm EST – The first data files, indicating the state of the spacecraft, are successfully decoded. The team learns that the battery is fully charged at 100%, and its temperature is in line with those in 2005 and historic values.

    3:19 pm EST – Engineers at APL continue to capture IMAGE data. Scientists determine that they are now running on Side A of the Power Distribution Unit (PDU) – a surprise given that it had been thought that the side A was dead after a presumed power failure on Thanksgiving Day in 2004.

    The ultimate cause of the current reboot is still not known, but these findings suggest that a reboot in some form has in fact, occurred.

    But the data indicate an overall healthy spacecraft. Next steps for the IMAGE team are to see if they can do more than just listen to the spacecraft, and talk back to it. As of Feb. 7, efforts are still underway.

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