Jan. 30 (UPI) –Amateur astronomer Scott Tilley was trying to find Zuma, the top-secret spy satellite that reportedly failed to secure a stable orbit after it was launched earlier this year. Instead, he found IMAGE, a NASA spacecraft missing since 2005.
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Amateur satellite-tracker finds NASA’s lost IMAGE spacecraft
Jan. 30 (UPI) — Amateur astronomer Scott Tilley was trying to find Zuma, the top-secret spy satellite that reportedly failed to secure a stable orbit after it was launched earlier this year.
Tilley first observed the spacecraft while scanning S-band frequency data on Jan. 20. On Monday, NASA followed up on Tilley’s lead and confirmed the craft is indeed IMAGE.
Scientists at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center pointed five different radio antennas at the spacecraft to field its unique radio frequency signals.
“As of Monday, Jan. 29, observations from all five sites were consistent with the radio frequency characteristics expected of IMAGE,” NASA announced in an update. “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.”
As Tiller explained in a blog post describing his discovery, the IMAGE spacecraft can reboot as it passes through Earth’s shadow.
Amateur astronomer discovers a revived NASA satellite
After Tilley revealed the discovery, word rocketed around to former members of IMAGE’s science team, says Patricia Reiff, a space plasma physicist at Rice University in Houston, Texas, who was a co-investigator on the mission. ‘The odds are extremely good that it’s alive,’ Reiff says. There also appear to be data beyond telemetry in the signal, perhaps indicating some of the satellite’s suite of six instruments are working.
Since Tilley’s announcement, project scientists spent a couple days furiously digging up old software and records, and this weekend, NASA will attempt to contact IMAGE with its deep space radio antennas’as will the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, and researchers at the University of California, Berkeley. Right now, the team is puzzled as to why it appears the spacecraft’s rotation rate has slowed, which may make communication more challenging. ‘The team is collectively holding their breath waiting for some real information exchange between IMAGE and the ground,’ Reiff adds.
Prior to its failure, IMAGE was already considered a successful mission. The half-ton satellite’s instruments served as a sort of telescope, providing a global view of charged particles captured in Earth’s magnetic field. IMAGE’s instruments captured energetic neutral particles ejected by collisions of atoms in the inner magnetosphere, creating a broad-scale picture of that region and its interactions with the sun. It’s a capability that has never been replaced, Reiff says. ‘It is really invaluable for now-casting space weather and really understanding the global response of the magnetosphere to solar storms.’
During its extended mission, however, IMAGE’s signal winked out just before Christmas in 2005. The mission had been working perfectly up to that point; NASA eventually attributed the loss to a misfire of the controller providing power to the satellite’s transponder. It remained possible, however, that IMAGE could reset itself during points in its orbit when Earth eclipsed its solar panels for an extended time, draining its batteries. Such eclipses occurred last year’and 5 years ago’perhaps triggering its rebirth.
If IMAGE is revived, its orbit will be well positioned to monitor Earth’s northern auroral zone. It’s thrilling to think the spacecraft could be back, Reiff adds. It reminds her of the mission’s motto: ‘The real voyage of discovery is not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.’
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