Amateur sky watcher finds a long silent NASA science satellite talking again

Scott Tilley, an “amateur visual and radio astronomer”, recently discovered that a NASA science satellite that went silent in 2005 had begun transmitting again: Amateur astronomer discovers a revived NASA satellite | Science/AAAS

The astronomer, Scott Tilley, spends his free time following the radio signals from spy satellites. On this occasion, he was searching in high-Earth orbit for evidence of Zuma, a classified U.S. satellite that’s believed to have failed after launch. But rather than discovering Zuma, Tilley picked up a signal from a satellite labeled “2000-017A,” which he knew corresponded to NASA’s IMAGE satellite. Launched in 2000 and then left for dead in December 2005, the $150 million mission was back broadcasting. It just needed someone to listen.

Scientists who had worked previously on the IMAGE ( Imager for Magnetopause-to-Aurora Global Exploration) project are hoping to resume their studies with the satellite, which had been quite productive:

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.

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