An Amateur Astronomer Found NASA’s Long Lost IMAGE Satellite?

Back in 2000, NASA launched a satellite, the Magnetopause-to-Aurora Global Exploration satellite (called IMAGE) and after 5 years NASA lost contact with the satellite. The satellite’s mission was to study the Earth’s magnetosphere and how it interacts with solar winds. In 2005 NASA inexplicably lost all contact with the satellite and believed it to be dead, until now.

An amateur astronomer, named Scott Tilley, found a signal coming from a satellite named “2000-017A” which Tilley knew was the IMAGE satellite. So, did he find this once dead satellite come back to life, or did he discover another satellite?

Scientists use satellites to track weather, map ice sheet melting, detect diseases, show ecosystem change… the list goes on and on. I think nearly every scientific field benefits or could benefit from satellite imagery analysis. – Sarah Parcak

Was it The IMAGE Satellite?

NASA’s IMAGE satellite being launched in 2000. Image source: NASA

Scott Tilley was actually searching for an American spy satellite called Zuma that supposedly did not reach orbit (it was launched using SpaceX’s Falcon 9 boosters). In his search for that Zuma satellite, he ended up finding another unidentified frequency. After running an identity he found that the signal was coming from a satellite called “2000-017A” and after a bit of Googling he discovered that the frequency belonged to none other than the IMAGE satellite that was supposedly lost. What is really interesting is that another amateur astronomer has records of the satellite communicating going as far back as October of 2016, so it is impossible to say when IMAGE decided to wake up from its long nap.

NASA is now in the process of trying to reestablish contact using deep space antennas to see if the lost craft can be brought back to life. Patricia Reiff, a space plasma physicist from Rice University, has said, “The odds are extremely good that it’s alive.” Once scientists are able to actually make contact and confirm that IMAGE is still somewhat working they can start sending it software and information to try to get the satellite working again. Scientists believe that once they can fully communicate with IMAGE then IMAGE can actually start doing its mission again. It is supposedly positioned perfectly to be able to capture and study Earth’s northern poles.

It is really unknown what sparked the IMAGE satellite to come back to life, but hopefully, once scientists can fully establish contact they can learn more from it about its off time. The fact that an 18-year-old satellite can come back to life and possibly operate again.I mean I can’t even get my iPhone to last a few years but NASA can get a satellite in space to work. This is definitely not the first time NASA has lost a spacecraft, and it will not be the last. One of the most famous lost spacecraft is the Mars rover Spirit, which died a decently slow death. It was active for about 5 years until it became stuck in the sand. NASA eventually lost full contact with Spirit in 2010 and the craft is still unrecoverable.

What is the IMAGE Satellite?

The Imager for Magnetopause-to-Aurora Global Exploration satellite, more commonly referred to as the IMAGE satellite, was launched in March of 2000 with the mission to study our Earth’s magnetosphere and how it is affected by solar winds. It originally had a 2-year mission but was extended indefinitely until all contact with the craft was lost in December of 2005. After multiple failed attempts to contact the satellite, NASA declared the IMAGE satellite lost.

It was believed that either the transponder’s power supply had essentially short-circuited and died, or the craft experienced some sort of radiation event that triggered the power supply on the transponder to shut down. In 2007 NASA hoped that an eclipse would actually reset the craft. The hope was that once the satellite entered Earth’s shadow it would have a power drop and that would reset all the systems and bring the craft back up to life. This obviously did not happen and NASA gave up on IMAGE.

The IMAGE satellite capturing an image of the ultraviolet Aurora australis. Image source: Wikipedia

The IMAGE satellite caught stunning pictures of the Earth’s magnetosphere for researchers to study to better understand our Earth (like the picture above). If scientists are able to get IMAGE back up then they can set it back to work to continue learning about the magnetosphere and the effect of solar winds. IMAGE was so successful that NASA set up another mission called Magnetospheric Multiscale Mission (known as MMS) to follow up on what IMAGE captured. That craft was launched in 2015 and is still operating to this day.

What Happens to Lost Spacecraft?

A computer-generated image of all the satellites orbiting our Earth. Image source: Wikipedia

Hearing about dead satellites conjures up the question of what happens to dead satellites. Space debris that orbits our Eart is a mixture of dead satellites, spent rockets, and debris from satellite collisions. Humans have been launching satellites and probes into space since 1957 when Russia (at that time the Soviet Union) launched Sputnik 1, which crashed back into Earth about 1 month after its launch (supposedly).

The oldest spacecraft still orbiting the Earth is the Vanguard 1, launched by the United States. Over time a lot of the space debris will re-enter Earth’s atmosphere and will burn up and crash. Unfortunately, that usually happens once a day and isn’t even making a dent in the amount of space debris. Since the space debris is a hazard to just about anything we launch into space, so what our options in dealing with all the debris?

A rendering of a space claw, called Cleanspace One, to remove debris. Image source: CNN

Scientists and developers have been coming up with an idea for a space vehicle to somehow corral the debris and move it to a new location. There have been a lot of proposed ideas including using magnets, nets, robotic arms to pick the junk up, but my personal favorite idea is a claw (pictured above).

Technically all companies who launch spacecraft are supposed to have an action plan to get those crafts back, but of course, not all companies comply with that rule. Hopefully, we can soon begin removing the space debris to make room for new technology and for a manned mission to the ISS or even Mars.

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