The ISEE-3 Reboot Project, One Year Later

A Year Later, Thoughts

As I write this we are in the week of the first anniversary of the return to the Earth moon system and lunar flyby of the ISEE-3 Spacecraft.  I wanted to share some thoughts about this from the perspective of a year later.  For those who may not know what the ISEE-3 spacecraft or the ISEE-3 reboot project is, please go to this website and watch the video, produced for us by our friends at Google Creative Labs.  (Google Creative Labs Documentary)

News article from 1978…,4811696&hl=en

First article to confirm reception of the ISEE-3 Signal in 2014

Our ISEE-3 Crowdfunding page at

Our old Space College site.  Has lots of information that tracked the project.  (best to go to the right side of the page and look at each month’s posts, starting in March of 2014)

Links to previous blog posts on ISEE-3….   (First Blog Post on WUWT on the project)


For those interested in the whole scope of the ISEE-3 spacecraft’s mission, our reboot project, and everything that happened, I invite you to go to the above websites and explore.  I have just gone back through the our reports, and blog posts on the project, and have come away amazed at what we were able to accomplish.  What I want to relate to you the reader today is my heartfelt appreciation for everyone that helped us last year, something that we did somewhat during the project but it requires a more detailed treatment now.

First of all, it would have been impossible to carry out the project without a lot of volunteer labor and effort.  The crowdfunding for the project raised $159,620 dollars.  Out of that we had to pay over $13k just to Rocket Hub for the effort.  This left us with about $146k dollars.  We had to pay Keith Cowing’s Spaceref Interactive $5k for his media support. (both of those expenditures were well worth it).  This left us with ~$141k to do the entire project. We had no idea when we began that we would be going to Arecibo to actually contact the spacecraft.  Taking three people down there (a fourth came for a short stay), cost us well north of $20k dollars.  The transmitter cost us about $16k dollars after overnight shipping from Germany was thrown in.  Fulfillment of the stuff that people got cost us another $13k.  That left less than $100k payroll for the core team (only a few months!) and paying for some dish time around the world.

Memories of the Project Beginning…

I had been disappointed in February of 2014 when this article, from Emily Lakdawalla from the Planetary Society excerpted a Facebook post by people who were trying to do the effort.  Here was the money quote:

Can we tell the spacecraft to turn back on its thrusters and science instruments after decades of silence and perform the intricate ballet needed to send it back to where it can again monitor the Sun? The answer to that question appears to be no.

The transmitters of the Deep Space Network [DSN ed:], the hardware to send signals out to the fleet of NASA spacecraft in deep space, no longer includes the equipment needed to talk to ISEE-3. These old-fashioned transmitters were removed in 1999. Could new transmitters be built? Yes, but it would be at a price no one is willing to spend. And we need to use the DSN because no other network of antennas in the US has the sensitivity to detect and transmit signals to the spacecraft at such a distance.

This effort has always been risky with a low probability of success and a near-zero budget. It is thanks to a small and dedicated group of scientists and engineers that we were able to get as far as we have. Thank you all very much.

This note of finality just did not set with me.  In some of my work in low cost spacecraft development I knew that there were other dishes available, some were decommissioned DSN or former NASA/DoD assets.  There were other assets around the world but they would have ITAR problems (laws governing the export of spacecraft technical data).  I did a preliminary search for information based on some links from the ISEE-3 Facebook page and found documentation about the spacecraft.  The communications waveforms used then were quite simple in comparison to today. Fortuitously Bob Twiggs (of cubsat and small sat fame) and Andy Filo (who had just helped build the chipsat cubsat that had a software defined radio on it), both pointed me in the direction of Ken Biba, a seasoned software defined radio guru in Silicon Valley.  We had lunch and we both figured that with the simple waveforms that it was indeed doable with software defined radio, but the communications really did not go much farther than two engineers sitting around talking about what could be done.

This all changed on March 9th, when the Bochum radio observatory in Germany received the first confirmed signals from the bird when it was about 43 million km away from the Earth.  This was accomplished by Achim Vollhardt and Mario Lorenz, two members of the Amateur Radio Satellite (AMSAT) organization in German (AMSAT-DL).  These guys were later more than instrumental in our success, operating the dish in Germany with us to allow us to operate the spacecraft in coordination with Arecibo in near real time.

Bob Farquhar, who I had known since the early 1990’s was always one of my hero’s for the amazing mission that was done with ISEE-3, turning it to ICE in the early 1980’s to save American pride by doing the first close flyby of a comet with a spacecraft.  In 2013 he had gotten in touch and was sending emails to anyone who would listen regarding the necessity of saving the spacecraft.  At the time we were running tape for the Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project (LOIRP), and did not have time to consider that mission.  However, after seeing that one blip on the screen from the spacecraft, I started thinking about how it could possibly be done.

The Beginning

After thinking about this for a while and doing some calculations about software defined radios and running a couple of link margins, I contacted my then collaborator on things technoarchaeology, Keith Cowing from NASA Watch.  Keith and I had briefly discussed this in the previous year but figured someone else would do it.  As seen above that effort was abandoned in early 2014.  After a review of the literature and the documents that we could get our hands on, I made the commitment to go forward and so did Keith.

Keith had been our media partner when we had done a successful crowdfunding the previous year for the Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project (LOIRP) and we started thinking about what it would take to do the project.  I originally used a very wild guess of $75k but quickly saw that as too little.  We decided that we would go for $125k and use Rockethub, the site we had used before.  The biggest issue was, would NASA support us?  We were fortunate in that we had been able to do the LOIRP project when some inside NASA said we could not do it and the agency saw that the two technologies were not dissimilar.  I also had flown Shuttle and ISS payloads and built a student small satellite so there was some credibility there.

Keith was instrumental in setting up a meeting with NASA headquarters that was had on April 12th, 2014.  This meeting was necessary as there were a lot of rumors going around that NASA headquarters was going to fund NASA GSFC to do the rescue mission.  We knew both from published reports and direct communications with NASA Science Mission Directorate (SMD) director Dr. John Grunsfeld that there was no way that NASA would fund this when SMD was seriously looking at turning off three active missions because of funding problems (Cassini, Mars Opportunity Rover, and Lunar Recon Orbiter).  At the teleconference Dr. Grunsfeld spelled out that there could be no agency funding for any NASA led rescue and then gave their nod that they would not oppose our crowd funding effort but that we would have to get a Space Act Agreement together to make everything work after the crowdfunding started.  So on April 14th 2014 we started our ISEE-3 Reboot Project.

Getting Started

We were extremely fortunate that the ISEE-3 mission had already generated a good deal of press, and people liked that we were a small private group trying to pull this off.  Donations came pouring in, and we generated almost 20% of our goal in just a few days.  Note that we did not have any of the money yet, but the prospects were good, so one of my company’s advisors (Rod Dobson) loaned the project $25k to get started.  And get started we did!

It turned out that Ken Biba was not going to be available to help us but Matthew Reyes from NASA Ames and Andy Filo pointed me toward a company called Ettus Research, a Software Defined Radio (SDR) company located just a few miles away from us in Sunnyvale.  A meeting was arranged and we went over and met with John Malsbury and Balint Seeber, both SDR guru’s from Ettus.  We pre-sent some information to them and had our first meeting around April 25th.  By that time John and Balint had already put together a straw man of the design of the software for the SDR for ISEE-3.

We were also getting help in the ham world.  When we went live with the crowd funding people started coming to us who had been interested in saving the spacecraft.  We were in almost constant contact with Achim and Mario at AMSAT-DL and another fellow, Karl-Max Wagner also provided a lot of background information from various sources around the world.  Karl-Max Wagner also confirmed that our Ettus contacts were good people and could do the job.  Bob Twiggs introduced us to some other folks at Morehead State University in Kentucky, and we brought Bob Kroll together with Achim and Mario who were receiving the signals from the spacecraft through the Bochum dish.  This is where it started to get really interesting.

Both Bochum and Morehead were receiving ISEE-3 on two frequencies, the 2217.4 and a 2270.5 frequency.  The Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico had also seen both frequencies on April 9th.   We had been sitting in on a weekly teleconference of interested people at NASA GSFC and they were incredulous that both radios were transmitting!  According to information that we had obtained and that the NASA people who had worked on ISEE-3 when NASA still had the equipment, both transmitters were not left on.  It was a mystery to them what happened.

Contrary to some reports, we had a lot of technical support from NASA.  Leonard Garcia from NASA GSFC was coordinating a small group of people there who were interested in saving the spacecraft.  It was from Leonard, as well as from a lot of international sources, that we received our first data about the spacecraft.  For those that don’t know NASA almost never archives information about the details of spacecraft designs from contractors nor do they archive the technical documents.  While this is not good practice as far as I am concerned from a historical preservation perspective, it is the way that things are done.  Thus our information came from those dedicated people who had worked on the project as well as some NASA records lying around as the team had planned to try and wake the spacecraft up in 2014 as far back as 1987.  There had also been an appreciable amount of information that had “leaked” out onto the internet.  These sources ended up being instrumental to our work.

As we got started, an avalanche of information and help started coming our way. We were talking to Bob Farquhar, David Dunham, Ed Smith from NASA JPL, Tycho Von Rosenvinge (GSFC), Rich Burns (GSFC), Warren Martin, Craig Nickel (NASA HQ), Craig Roberts (AI Solutions) as well as Phil Perillat and Mike Nolan from the Aercibo Radio Telescope.  All of these guys provided good input to us and Phil was especially good at using the telescope to refine the trajectory of the telescope using the dish, something that I had no idea it could do (but should have).

Another ham radio guy showed up about this time, Pat Barthelow (AA6EG), and he started helping us line up a transmitter to talk to the spacecraft.  When this started I had no idea that high power S band transmitters were not sitting on someone’s shelf in a warehouse.  This immediately caused a problem because this meant that we could not use either Morehead State’s 21 meter dish, or the 20 meter dish at Bochum.  What to do?  Use Arecibo’s large dish.  After talking to Mike Nolan we found out that the dish had been undergoing repairs after a major earthquake and was not fully back up to speed.  Also, in another one of these well timed events, the time that Aercibo’s dish could talk to the spacecraft for about 2.5 hours a day, was in the late afternoon, just at the end of their scheduled daily maintenance and before scientific studies started.  What this did is give us an idea that we could use the dish to transmit as well as receive, if the numbers worked out.  It turns out that when you start with 73db of gain, you don’t need a big transmitter even at 20 million km distance.  It also helps that Arecibo’s radio frequency plumbing is also set up for S band and so it was viable to do with a transmitter that we could get in a month’s time.  Thus we now had all of the essential elements that we needed to actually talk to the spacecraft.  Our biggest problem now was time…..

Next Time… Google Creative Lab and our Trip to Arecibo

This is getting long as I want to give a sense of the drama going on and to give people credit when and where it was due for the success of the project.  It was truly a collaboration of very good people to make it happen and I am proud to say I was involved.

4 thoughts on “The ISEE-3 Reboot Project, One Year Later

  1. Specifically, what kind of information did you need to acquire from NASA/Others before you could begin to set the project in motion?

    1. We had to get the command codes for the spacecraft, the telemetry format, and the coefficients for the sensors.

      We never got the coefficients for most things and had to figure it out from indirect data from the original manufacturers when we could either find or derive it.

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