ISEE-3 Completes Lunar Flyby, Begins a Citizen Science Program

The journey began on August 12, 1978 from Cape Canaveral on a Delta II launch vehicle. Now after 36 years and 30 billions miles of travel around the Sun — as well as a crowd-funded reboot of the spacecraft and a foiled attempt to put it into Earth orbit — the ISEE-3 has completed a return visit to the Earth-Moon system.

The spacecraft made its closest approach to the Earth on August 9 and flyby of the Moon, August 10, 2014. Closest approach was 15,600 km (9693 miles) from the Moon’s surface. With the lunar flyby, Skycorp, Inc. of Mountain View, California, with help from Google Creative Labs, has announced a revised mission for ISEE-3 to deliver science to the public domain.

ISEE-3 has marked several important milestones and achievements for NASA over the five decades in which it has traveled and monitored the particles and fields between the Earth and the Sun. Its latest milestone – returning to Earth, was planned and refined over 30 years ago. However, with NASA no longer interested in recovering the spacecraft because of the limitations of its present budgets, its impending return would be with no fanfare, no commanding, no recovery into Earth orbit and no new mission. With the news that NASA could not afford a recovery, space enthusiasts began to talk. Retired and active aerospace engineers began to exchange ideas with avid HAM radio operators around the World.  Finally, one group took charge. They revived the vintage spacecraft and has now designed a new mission for the it.

NASA illustration of the ISEE-3 swing by the Moon, 1982. On August 10, 2014, ISEE-3 will fly within 15,600 km (9693 miles) from the Moon's surface.
NASA illustration of the ISEE-3 fly by the Moon, 1982. On August 10, 2014, ISEE-3 will fly within 15,600 km (9693 miles) above the Moon’s surface.

Enter Dennis Wingo and Austin Epps of Skycorp, Inc. Residing in an abandoned McDonald’s drive-thru on Moffett Field in Mountain View, California, they began a journey in March to recover the spacecraft. First off, before any recovery attempt could be undertaken, it required original documentation, so Dennis with assistance from Keith Cowing began contacting original ISEE-3 engineers, calling, knocking on NASA doors and finally began signing NASA space act agreements to have the documents released into their possession. And what fascinating documents they were.

Written long before the internet, before the first personal computers and when computer punch cards and main frames were the means to program and command spacecraft, most of the ISEE-3 documents resided as printed documents only, on none other than paper, yellowing and old, doomed to eventually rot away in modest storage rooms. Some had been converted to the modern archive format, Adobe’s PDF file format. This was the beginning of revival of a working knowledge to command the spacecraft. It was very sketchy but in about 90 days, documents appeared, documents were scanned to PDFs, searched and the team prepared for the recovery attempt.

Key Personnel of the ISEE-3 Reboot Project. From left, Casey Harper, Cameron Woodman, Austin Epps, Jacob Gold, Balint Seeber, Keith Cowing, Denis Wingo, Marco Colleluori and Ken Zin.
Key personnel of the ISEE-3 Reboot Project. From left, Casey Harper, Cameron Woodman, Austin Epps, Jacob Gold, Balint Seeber, Keith Cowing, Dennis Wingo, Marco Colleluori and Ken Zin. (Photo credit, Google Creative Labs)

The team grew rapidly and as the Beatles song goes, Skycorp got by with a little help from their friends. Actually, a lot of help from their friends. First, there was a crowd funding effort. Thousands of individuals from around the globe contributed to a final crowd funding purse of about $160,000. This is in contrast to the $100 million or much more that is required to reach just the launch date of a NASA mission.

Next, the people that had been exchanging comments on blogs (e.g. Planetary blog post on ISEE-3) began making themselves available, no charge, providing decades of accrued experience in spacecraft design and operation and other very relevant expertise. There were original NASA engineers, Robert Farquhar and David Dunham, Warren Martin, Bobby Williams, and Craig Roberts. HAM radio operators appeared or were contacted from as far as England (AMSAT-UK), Germany(Bochum Obs.) and as nearby as the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California. All this expertise, working knowledge and capable hardware had to converge very rapidly. By the latter half of May, they were ready.

The operators of the venerable Arecibo Radio Telescope offered their expertise and its 1000 foot radio dish for communication purposes. And an absolutely critical solution was found to replace the lack of any existing transmitter that could communicate with the old 40 year old technology. NASA had retired and scrapped the original Deep Space Network equipment. So technology developed by Ettus Research Corp. of Santa Clara, California was identified as a possible replacement for the non-existent transmitter. Ettus proposed a combination of open source software called Gnu Radio configured to work with Ettus developed Universal Software Radio Peripheral (USRP) platforms as the solution. With the Skycorp team constructing the command sequences, Ettus engineers Balint Seeber and a former engineer John Marlsbury rigged the critical substitute for a hardware transmitter and with the expertise to modulate and demodulate a radio signal, a trip to Puerto Rico and the Arecibo dish was undertaken in May.

After two weeks of some waiting on hardware and trial and error, there was success. Two-way communication was achieved and ISEE-3 truly became ISEE-3 Reboot. Further hiccups unfolded by trial and error, learning to command and receive with still less than complete working knowledge. More NASA space act agreements were necessary to permit the access to achieve success. Finally, NASA provided time on the Deep Space Network, the famous Goldstone radio dish and others in the network, famous for communicating with Apollo missions and Voyagers at the edge of the Solar System. This provided further attempts at communication that helped to resolve and understand issues. Furthermore, a Bell Labs engineer, Phil Karn Jr. (KA9Q) volunteered his expertise in late night work sessions, to demodulate and decode the incoming radio signal, to convert analog signal into 1’s and 0’s. Phil provided crucial input and energy to the ISEE-3 Reboot at a key juncture.

The ultimate goal could now be attempted – command the spacecraft to fire its rocket engines to change its trajectory and become captured by the Earth’s gravitational field. Mike Loucks of Space Exploration Engineering and engineers of Applied Defense Solutions, Inc. worked quickly to provide trajectory information and revisions. Finally, commanding ISEE-3 to fire its rockets was attempted and then attempted again and again. Skycorp concluded that father time was what was truly in command of ISEE-3’s destiny. Thirty-six years in space had taken its toll and Skycorp engineers realized that the fuel tanks had lost pressure. They could command it in all necessary ways but the spacecraft could not squeeze the fuel out of the tanks.

Recovering from this disappointment, Skycorp has arrived at today with the help of the original engineers lead by Robert Farquhar of Goddard Space Flight Center, along with the thousands through crowd funding contributions and an incredible group of volunteers. And along the way, Google Creative Labs documented the adventure and created the compendium which was delivered to the public domain last week, A Spacecraft for All. This web site provides a graphic illustration of both the ISEE-3 timeline as well as its incredible journey to explore the Sun-Earth relationship, study two comets and then undertake a 30 year journey to return to Earth on August 10, 2014.

Using the radio telescope at Morehead State University, they will continue receiving the commanded telemetry stream from the remaining viable science instruments, process the data and present it to the public and to professional researchers alike for analysis. While ISEE-3 could not be recovered into an Earth orbit as Farquhar had hoped decades ago, it will continue its journey around the Sun and return to the vicinity of the Earth in 2029. How long telemetry from ISEE-3 can be received as it travels away from the Earth remains to be seen, and keeping in contact with it will be a challenge for its new operators in the months ahead.

Watch the video below about the project:

Has the Cosmology Standard Model become a Rube Goldberg Device?

This week at the Royal Astronomical Society’s National Astronomy Meeting in the UK, physicists are challenging the evidence for the recent BICEP2 results regarding the inflation period of the Universe, announced just 90 days ago. New research is laying doubt upon the inclusion of inflation theory in the Standard Cosmological Model for understanding the forces of nature, the nature of elementary particles and the present state of the known Universe.

Back on March 17, 2014, it seemed the World was offered a glimpse of an ultimate order from eons ago … actually from the beginning of time. BICEP2, the single purpose machine at the South Pole delivered an image that after analysis, and subtraction of estimated background signal from the Milky Way, lead its researchers to conclude that they had found the earliest remnant from the birth of the Universe, a signature in ancient light that supported the theory of Inflation.

 BICEP2 Telescope at twilight at the South Pole, Antartica (Credit: Steffen Richter, Harvard University)
BICEP2 Telescope at twilight at the South Pole, Antarctica (Credit: Steffen Richter, Harvard University)

Thirty years ago, the Inflation theory was conceived by physicists Alan Guth and Andei Linde. Guth, Linde and others realized that a sudden expansion of the Universe at only 1/1000000000000000000000000000000000th of a second after the Big Bang could solve some puzzling mysteries of the Cosmos. Inflation could explain the uniformity of the cosmic background radiation. While images such as from the COBE satellite show a blotchy distribution of radiation, in actuality, these images accentuate extremely small variations in the background radiation, remnants from the Big Bang, variations on the order of 1/100,000th of the background level.

Note that the time of the Universe’s proposed Inflationary period immediately after the Big Bang would today permit light to travel only 1/1000000000000000th of the diameter of the Hydrogen atom. The Universe during this first moment of expansion was encapsulated in a volume far smaller than the a single atom.

Emotions ran very high when the BICEP2 team announced their findings on March 17 of this year. The inflation event that the background radiation data supported is described as a supercooling of the Cosmos however, there were physicists that simply remained cool and remained contrarians to the theory. Noted British Physicist Sir Roger Primrose was one who remained underwhelmed and stated that the incredible circular polarization of light that remained in the processed data from BICEP2 could be explained by the interaction of dust, light and magnetic fields in our own neighborhood, the Milky Way.

Illustration of the ESA Planck Telescope in Earth orbit (Credit: ESA)
Illustration of the ESA Planck Telescope in Earth orbit (Credit: ESA)

Now, new observations from another detector, one on the Planck Satellite orbiting the Earth, is revealing that the contribution of background radiation from local sources, the dust in the Milky Way, is appearing to have been under-estimated by the BICEP2 team. All the evidence is not yet laid out but the researchers are now showing reservations. At the same time, it does not dismiss the Inflation Theory. It means that more observations are needed and probably with greater sensitivity.

So why ask the question, are physicists constructing a Rube Goldberg device?

Our present understanding of the Universe stands upon what is called “the Standard Model” of Cosmology. At the Royal Astronomical Society meeting this week, the discussions underfoot could be revealing a Standard Model possibly in a state of collapse or simply needing new gadgets and mechanisms to remain the best theory of everything.

Also this week, new data further supports the discovery of the Higg’s Boson by the Large Hadron Collider in 2012, the elementary particle whose existence explains the mass of fundamental particles in nature and that supports the existence of the Higgs Field vital to robustness of the Standard Model. However, the Higgs related data is also revealing that if the inflationary period of the Universe did take place, then if taken with the Standard Model, one can conclude that the Universe should have collapsed upon itself and our very existence today would not be possible.

A Rube Goldberg Toothpaste dispenser as also the state of the Standard Model (Credit: R.Goldberg)
A Rube Goldberg Toothpaste dispenser as also the state of the Standard Model (Credit: R.Goldberg)

Dr. Brian Green, a researcher in the field of Super String Theory and M-Theory and others such as Dr. Stephen Hawking, are quick to state that the Standard Model is an intermediary step towards a Grand Unified Theory of everything, the Universe. The contortion of the Standard Model, into a sort of Rube Goldberg device can be explained by the undaunting accumulation of more acute and diverse observations at cosmic and quantum scales.

Discussions at the Royal Astronomical Society meeting are laying more doubts upon the inflation theory which just 90 days ago appeared so well supported by BICEP2 – data derived by truly remarkable cutting edge electronics developed by NASA and researchers at the California Institute of Technology. The trials and tribulations of these great theories to explain everything harken back to the period just prior to Einstein’s Miracle Year, 1905. Fragmented theories explaining separately the forces of nature were present but also the accumulation of observational data had reached a flash point.

Today, observations from BICEP2, NASA and ESA great space observatories, sensitive instruments buried miles underground and carefully contrived quantum experiments in laboratories are making the Standard Model more stressed in explaining everything, the same model so well supported by the Higg’s Boson discovery just two years ago. Cosmologists concede that we may never have a complete, proven theory of everything, one that is elegant; however, the challenges upon the Standard Model and inflation will surely embolden younger theorists to double the efforts in other theoretical work.

For further reading:
RAS NAM press release: Should the Higgs Boson Have Caused our Universe To Collapse?
We’ve Discovered Inflation!: Now What?
Cosmologists Cast Doubt on Inflation Evidence
Are the BICEP2 Results Invalid? Probably Not

Guest Post: No turning back, NASA ISEE-3 Spacecraft Returning to Earth after a 36 Year Journey

Editor’s note: This guest post was written by Tim Reyes, a former NASA software engineer and analyst who has supported development of orbital and lander missions to the planet Mars since 1992.

The International Sun-Earth Explorer spacecraft (ISEE-3) is phoning home and will be returning whether we are ready or not. Launched in 1978 to study Earth’s magnetosphere, the spacecraft was later repurposed to study two comets. Now, on its final leg of a 30-plus year journey to return to Earth, there’s a crowdfunding effort called ISEE-3 Reboot aimed at reactivating the hibernating spacecraft since NASA is not offering any funding to do so.

Interestingly, on May 14th, the spacecraft will be in conjunction with the planet Jupiter, passing only 2 arc minutes from the giant gas planet. While the spacecraft is not visible to the human eye or optical telescopes, Jupiter on the 14th marks the spot where ISEE-3 resides in our night sky.

ISEE-3 Jupiter conjunction on May 14, 2014. Graphic courtesy of Tim Reyes.
ISEE-3 Jupiter conjunction on May 14, 2014. Graphic courtesy of Tim Reyes.

Here’s a bit of history on the program and this spacecraft in particular: The International Sun-Earth Explorers 1, 2 and 3 were the vanguard of what became an ongoing NASA program to monitor and understand the Sun-Earth relationship. ISEE-3 was part of a 3 spacecraft international effort to study the interaction of the Solar Wind with the Earth’s magnetosphere.

In 1982, NASA engineers at Goddard Space Flight Center, led by Robert Farquhar devised an unprecedented sequence of propulsion maneuvers including Earth and Moon gravitational assists to send the spacecraft ISEE-3 out of the Earth-Moon system. It was rechristened as the International Cometary Explorer (ICE) to rendezvous with two comets – Giacobini-Zinner in 1985 and Comet Halley in 1986.

The trajectory given ISEE-3 to escape the Earth-Moon system and flyby comets included returning to Earth on August 10, 2014. Final tweaks to the trajectory were completed in 1987 to assure a flyby of the Moon which Farquhar knew could be used to return ISEE-3 to an Earth orbit.

ISEE-3 Reboot Project mission patch. Image courtesy ISEE-3 Reboot.
ISEE-3 Reboot Project mission patch. Image courtesy ISEE-3 Reboot.

Enter the 21st Century, 30 years later and documents and magnetic tapes have predictably disappeared. The software and hardware to program, command and transmit to ISEE-3 are long gone. An independent team of engineers, led by Dennis Wingo and Keith Cowing (the same leaders of the Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project (LOIRP) — recovering old imagery on magnetic tape reels from the first lunar orbiter missions), operating outside the ranks and hallways of NASA are now racing against the clock to accomplish a landmark achievement: to turn on, command and maneuver a NASA spacecraft long ago abandoned, its primary missions completed in the 1980s. There are no funds, no remaining hardware or mission software to execute but this is the 21st century.

As of this writing there are five days left to contribute to this project, which is at 92% of its goal.

“ISEE-3 Reboot” team leader Dennis Wingo, says that if the efforts to contact the spacecraft are successful, plans are to return the spacecraft to the Sun-Earth L1 Point. Wingo emphasizes that Farquhar remains as instrumental to the spacecraft’s recovery today as he was to its departure, providing critical insight into the spacecraft systems.

While ISEE-3 has been on its long journey to return to Earth, remarkable technological and social events have unfolded. The personal computer arrived and matured; visionaries such as Steve Jobs have come and gone. With the Internet — non-existent when ISEE-3 launched – now a RocketHub crowdfunding effort was started to raise funds. Teleconferencing, more limited to board rooms in the days ISEE-3’s launch-date have brought retired NASA engineers and Wingo’s band of engineers together.

Amateur radio operators now have technology sufficient to acquire the signal and through the internet are also a part of the recovery effort. These events have conspired to give the band of engineers a small window of opportunity to recover the spacecraft. Additionally, without the original hardware transmitter, today’s high-speed electronics are able to emulate in software the hardware from 36 years ago.

While budget woes and shortfalls have plagued NASA since the 1960s, the 1980s were especially difficult. Recall that it included a decade void of any missions to Mars. Additionally, Congress refused to fund a US led mission to flyby Comet Halley. NASA was left out in the comet’s return while European, the Soviets and Japanese all had spacecraft planned. Repurposing ISEE-3 filled this gap and it became the first spacecraft to ever fly through the tail of a comet.

Now 36 years after launch, a spacecraft that time forgot, ISEE-3 has become a time traveler. It is the twin astronaut returning home from his long journey to find his twin, now aged and the World transformed. Wingo and his engineers, by recovering ISEE-3 create a link from the past to the present new generations of engineers. Wingo’s Skycorp will make ISEE-3 scientific data open to the public and to researchers and present a system for training engineers in mission management and spacecraft systems.