Way back in 1978, NASA launched the International Sun/Earth Explorer 3 (ISEE-3) probe into orbit to study the Earth’s solar winds and magnetic fields. The spacecraft set quite a few records, including being the first spacecraft to fly by a comet as well as the first to fly through the tail of a comet. It collected data right up until 1999, when its communications were turned off by NASA and the probe entered a deep sleep mode. This year, ISEE-3 will pass close to Earth, and a crowdfunding project on RocketHub wants to contact the probe, reactivate it, and put it back to work.
The idea is a simple one: contact the ISEE-3, tell it to fire its engine, and get it into a stable Earth orbit. Once there, it can resume operations, collecting data for its original mission as well as potentially chasing more comets. NASA approves of the project in principle, but unfortunately, the agency doesn’t have the funds to support it financially, thanks to budget cuts and changing priorities. However, the project has brought together a large team of NASA scientists, coders, and engineers, and they have access to a radio telescope that can communicate with ISEE-3.
The project needs $125,000 to carry out its mission. This money will fund the very difficult task of figuring out how to use today’s technology to communicate with a spacecraft built over 35 years ago. The original hardware for ISEE-3’s communication capabilities no longer exists, so the team will have to recreate a virtual version from scratch,but ISEE-3 is in very good, and knowledgeable, hands: several members of the team are responsible for the Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project, which also depended on harnessing obsolete technology.
So what happens once communication is re-established with ISEE-3? With 12 of its 13 scientific instruments still working (at least as of 1999), the research team hopes to turn the spacecraft and its instruments over to the public by creating an app that allows anyone access to its data. If you're interested in donating, do so now as time is running out to save this spacecraft.