It phoned home: Spacecraft that went dead is sending signals back to Earth

The IMAGE spacecraft undergoing launch preparations in 2000. NASA thought it was lost, but it has called home.
The IMAGE spacecraft undergoing launch preparations in 2000. NASA thought it was lost, but it has called home.NASA

Something happened out there. In a surprising development that sounds like it came straight from science fiction, a spacecraft that was believed dead for more than a decade has been sending signals back to Earth.

The craft in question is a satellite that was sent up to study the Earth’s magnetosphere, which is the area around a planet dominated by its magnetic field.

The IMAGE (Imager for Magnetopause-to-Aurora Global Exploration) spacecraft was launched in March 2000. It orbited, collecting data with its instruments and sending it back, until December 2005, when it went dark.

The IMAGE is a giant octagon covered in solar panels, about 7 feet across and the height of a Prius, with long antennas sticking out of it.


The fact it was alive again was discovered by an amateur astronomer in Canada in mid-January. The astronomer’s find was confirmed last week.

Now the question is whether NASA scientists can get the satellite back to work.

The spacecraft has been broadcasting “health and safety real-time telemetry,” said Rick Burley, was director of the IMAGE mission but since its demise has gone on to work on other major NASA missions.

“It appears to be operating as designed at this time. Spacecraft temperatures are what we would expect. The battery state of charge is full. The voltages and various currents . . . are all what we would expect in the state it’s in,” said Burley.

“The spacecraft is safe and stable,” he said.

Burley is looking into what to do about the old mission while at the same time serving as mission manager for the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership, a weather satellite.

“That’s my day job,” he said. “IMAGE is my unexpected job.”

“We’re going to try to do a preliminary assessment of the spacecraft’s ability to return to operation.” he said.


One step will be taken Thursday and Friday when an antenna from the Deep Space Network, which was used to download data from the spacecraft at high speeds, will try to capture and record data from IMAGE, Burley said.

Work is also underway to regain the ability to command the spacecraft, which requires reviving old software.

“We’re not prepared to command yet,” Burley said.

So what happened out there in space? Did an alien take a hammer to the spacecraft?

Burley thinks the spacecraft could have been knocked for a loop by a cosmic ray’s high-energy strike on a crucial microelectronic device — and the problem could have been cleared by a power cycle reboot.

NASA says its scientists are puzzling over what caused the reboot and why one of the redundant electronics systems on board is working again when it was previously thought to be dead

Patricia Reiff, one of the original scientists in charge of the mission, said in a statement from Rice University, “I think a really strong case can be made that if it’s healthy and if the instruments are healthy, then IMAGE needs to be reactivated.”

She said she was most interested in IMAGE providing real-time imaging of the polar aurora (referred to as the Northern and Southern Lights). No such data has been collected since IMAGE disappeared.

Burley said he was surprised when he opened an e-mail informing him that IMAGE, a mission that he had been proud to work on, had been found again.


“I said, ‘Oh my God!’ and I spit my coffee all over my laptop,” he said.

Asked if he would like to revive IMAGE or stay on his current project, he said, “I want to do both. I want NASA to produce the best science it possibly can. I want to have my cake and eat it, too.”

“If it can still produce science of the quality it did before,” he said, “it would be an asset to the NASA science fleet.”