A couple of days ago, an amateur astronomer discovered an object located in High Earth Orbit and suggested that it’s NASA’s long-lost Imager for Magnetopause-to-Aurora Global Exploration (IMAGE) satellite. The space agency later confirmed that the object drifting through Earth’s high orbit, in fact, was IMAGE. NASA made an announcement on Tuesday saying that it would try to restart the satellite.
NASA’s IMAGE was originally launched on March 25, 2000, from the Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. The space agency initially prepared it for a mission which would last two years. NASA’s long-lost imager was supposed to “image Earth’s magnetosphere and produce the first comprehensive global images of the plasma populations in this region.” However, the mission was extended and did its task beyond the time frame.
Unfortunately, the satellite didn’t make contact during a routine pass on Dec. 18, 2005. The space agency attempted to reboot it after an eclipse in 2007, without success. The mission was called off and the satellite was left to drift in space as space junk.
Amateur astronomer spotted it
Scott Tilley is an amateur astronomer who runs a blog called “Riddles in the Sky.” The blog is devoted to “observing, mostly classified, satellites.” The amateur astronomer was observing the sky while searching for Zuma, the top-secret satellite which was launched by SpaceX earlier this year, and soon after went missing. Instead of the Zuma satellite, Tilley discovered another satellite on Jan. 20. Furthermore, its signal was identified as NASA’s long-lost imager.
After NASA heard about the discovery, it attempted to locate the radio signal by the satellite by using five separate antennae.
On Monday, the space agency confirmed that the “observations from all five sites were consistent with the radio frequency characteristics expected of IMAGE. Specifically, the radio frequency showed a spike in the expected center frequency, as well as sidebands where they should be for IMAGE. Oscillation of the signal was also consistent with the last known spin rate for IMAGE.”
Now that NASA has located the long-lost satellite and “returned it from the dead,” the space agency wants to ensure that the satellite is for sure IMAGE. In the announcement, NASA said that they will try to capture data from the radio signal and analyze it. This practice is likely going to be quite challenging, considering that the technology used for hardware and software on IMAGE is from several years ago. The space agency engineers will need to do some reverse engineering on a lot of the equipment and operating systems.
If everything goes well, NASA will attempt to re-activate the currently-switched-off satellite, which will help scientists determine in what shape the instruments are on the satellite and whether they can continue working. With that info in mind, the space agency will be able to determine what to do next with the satellite.
Although scientists weren’t able to determine the real cause behind the malfunction of IMAGE, the final reports submitted by a review board suggest that an incident of a failure of the power supply could have been the cause.