Call For Hams And Hackers: Welcome ICE/ISEE-3 Home

ISEE-3, one of America’s most dedicated space exploration vessels is on its way home. Unfortunately, when it gets here, no one will be talking to it. NASA decommissioned the equipment needed to communicate with the satellite nearly 15 years ago. [Emily Lakdawalla] at the planetary society has been following the long traveled probe for years. Her recent article on the topic includes the news that NASA essentially gave up the battle before it even started.

Originally named International Sun/Earth Explorer 3 (ISEE-3), the spacecraft was launched atop a Delta rocket on August 12, 1978. Its mission was to study interaction between the Earth’s magnetic field and solar wind. As part of this mission ISEE-3 became the first spacecraft to enter halo orbit. It did this by positioning itself at Lagrangian point L1, directly between the sun and the Earth. In 1982, scientists on earth were preparing for the 1986 flyby of Halley’s Comet. ISEE-3 was repurposed as a comet hunter, and renamed International Cometary Explorer (ICE). The craft flew back to Earth and entered lunar orbit, coming within 120km of the moon’s surface. It used this momentum to achieve a heliocentric orbit, on track for two comet encounters. ICE/ISEE-3 encountered Comet Giacobini-Zinner on September 11, 1985, collecting data and becoming the first spacecraft to fly through a comet’s plasma tail. While not considered part of the Halley Armada, ICE/ISEE-3 took measurements as it passed within 28 million km of Comet Halley’s nucleus. Since then, ICE/ISEE-3 has continued on its 355 day heliocentric orbit. It studied coronal mass ejections in the early 90’s, before being shut down in May of 1997. Follow us past the break to learn ICE/ISEE-3’s fate.


In 1999, NASA contacted the probe to verify it was still functioning. All systems were determined to be operating fine. On September 18, 2008, NASA attempted to receive the probe’s carrier signal. To the space agency’s surprise, they found that the probe was never shut down after the 1999 status check. It was still transmitting data, and amazingly, 12 of its 13 science instruments were still operational.

This brings us to 2014. ICE/ISEE-3 is on its way home. It will return for a close Earth pass in August.  NASA has determined that the equipment needed to contact ICE/ISEE-3 was decommissioned from the Deep Space Network (DSN) in 1999. Due to budget limitations, rebuilding the equipment is not possible. If NASA won’t reach out to ICE/ISEE-3, perhaps Makers, Hackers, and Ham radio operators could. ICE/ISEE-3 includes two 5 watt S-Band transponders. Receiving the signal may not be a major problem. Transmitting however, will be. Without the gain of the large DSN dishes, contact will be difficult. This effort is further stymied by operating within the rules of governing bodies such as the FCC in the USA. It would seem to be an impossible task, however we can’t help but wrack our brains and scour the web for a solution. We’re not the only ones, [Mike Kenny] has put together a summary of the ICE/ISEE-3 communications systems (pdf link). Readers of ICE/ISEE’s facebook page are also suggesting plans. Maybe we’re a bit romantic, but wouldn’t it be great if private citizens of Earth accomplished what a major government organization couldn’t – contacting an all but forgotten space probe.

[Thanks Andrew!]
[Images Courtesy of NASA]

76 thoughts on “Call For Hams And Hackers: Welcome ICE/ISEE-3 Home

    1. Given the talk, it sounds as though it has enough fuel at least to do a trajectory change at the Lagrange Point as that takes almost no delta-V. The question of “can we fly it” is a bit harder though due to it technically being US gov’t property.

      1. All my space experience comes from Wikipedia and Kerbal Space Program, but is that enough delta-V to put it into an earth orbit using Aerobraking? Then the Ham community could have it.

        1. “aerobraking”

          You’re funny, you know that?
          (But seriously; unlike in KSP, if you tried to aerobrake with an actual spacecraft and no heat shields, you’re in for a bad time. Not to mention the velocities involved here are about 7 times higher.)

          1. That’s not quite true. The Magellan spacecraft did aerobreaking around Venus to get a circular orbit near the end of its mission. It didn’t have a heat shield, and I believe it was the first acutal use of aerobreaking ever.

          2. Aerobraking using the Earth’s atmosphere would not be practical.

            But using the Moon’s gravity for flybys to deaccelerate ICE into the Earth-Moon gravitational well would be possible – basically the reverse of the maneuvers used to push it out of the Earth-Moon libration point and shove it into solar orbit.

            When ISEE-3 was repurposed as ICE the scientists commented that they were only ‘borrowing’ the spacecraft for its repurposed cometary mission and would be glad to return it in 2014 when its orbit returned to Earth. Yes, back in the early 1980s when they first made the plans to do the ICE mission they knew the exact date it would return to the Earth-Moon system!

            Isn’t orbital mechanics fun?

    1. As far as I can tell, ICE/ISEE-3 doesn’t have a memory (tape drive), so it can only transmit live data. However, it with fuel in the tank and the instruments still working, it can still do meaningful science.

  1. OK, the big question — did anybody command the TWT or instruments off again after they discovered the data transmissions in 2008? If not, then the community has half a chance of getting a live data feed (according to the wiki page on the probe, the neccesary DSN transmitting equipment was already offline, so probably the TWT and instruments are still on!)

  2. The uplink command frequency seems to be in the BAS (broadcast auxiliary service) range – specifically channel A2 for transponder B and channel A6 for transponder A. Neither of these are in an amateur radio band. The FCC would come down on me hard if I were to broadcast on those frequencies.

    BAS seems to be for remote truck back to studio TV use.

    1. I was thinking along the same lines. We hams are only given a few narrow slivers of spectrum within the S-Band. We could listen, but I don’t think we could do anything more than that without special dispensation from the FCC.

      1. Nope, even in France I would not recommend to plug a Ricoré can from the wardriving age to a GnuRadio krancked up with a 300W amp to transmit on the S band to ISEE3. International waters are made for that =D

    1. That would be the most challenging part, for sure… but you never know what someone has in their backyard, or at their workplace… someone out there must have something that could be useful!

        1. I would be interested in making an array, I can make some antennas, we could make an array. How much gain do we need? yes i realize things will get crazy when phase matching tuns of cables, but i highly doubt you will need a 50 foot array.

        2. crunching some numbers, with a 4×4 array, we could get 16dB gain(12-14 after you consider losses), with active beam forming(in both phi and theta angles) for ~1000-1500 usd in that band.

  3. It seems that receiving the ICE/ISEE-3 signal would not be the problem, but is it transmitting anything interesting? That is, since it evidently did not record any data from its mission (no memory–tape drive). If it is transmitting something interesting then it might be an fun problem to record and decode the data being transmitted.

  4. My question would be is there a satellite that we already have in orbit that we could use as a relay to communicate it? That is, the satellite can use the s-band to communicate with the probe while we use a lower band to communicate with the satellite.

    Or could we just launch one?

    1. Interesting ideas, but 1. I doubt you’d ever be able to convince anyone to let you use another satellite with suitable comm specs to be able to contact ICE/ISEE, and 2. There’s not enough time to launch another, suitable spacecraft (development time, plus the launch considerations)

  5. that call is a bit late to develop a full sized antenna array and a communication system using modern methods, testing it and finally obtaining a license to actually use it to communicate with the spacecraft. Also the NASa won’t give us the codes … So wha even bother trying it? they fucked up. End of Story :(

    1. If we already have a satellite in orbit that can use the s-band that we can communicate with using lower bands, then we wouldn’t have to launch one. As for the codes, reverse engineering anyone?

  6. Does anyone know where in the sky this think will be in August? I can’t find anything on google. Why go through the trouble of building something to pick up a signal if it’s not going to be in line of site?

  7. The Deep Space Communications and Navigation website has some interesting information that might help in this endeavor, it’s a series of books in PDF format:

    As for getting the communications codes we might be able to get help from either NASA or perhaps one of the people who once worked for NASA. Though the real question is is the satellite still transmitting useful information and if it is then would we really need to establish communication right now?

    1. I think the issue is that it’s transmitting information about more or less nothing right now. If we could re-direct it to another mission, it would be sending useful infomation.
      If we miss this chance, it will be in range again in another 30 years.

  8. If we can rx data from this bird, I’m up for a couple of days of dev time (hard or software) putting something together to rx data. Can probably get a few other devs interested. Although I’d prob like an 85%+ chance it’s actually gonna be transmitting something!

  9. There are many “Ham’s” who do weak signal work with large dishes….S band is 2 to 4 Ghz I believe. It may only take some feed horn rework for them to work the ICE.
    They have used the giant radio telescope in Puerto Rico for ham radio EME (moon bounce)
    I know there is a way….BUT would THE Government let a bunch of hack’s show them up?
    Steve/ KE7IHG

  10. “Due to budget limitations, rebuilding the equipment is not possible” really? The DSN can’t afford a high end SDR dev-board that covers the S-band and a couple of interns to program it? Unless NASA also lost the communications specifications, I’d expect the interns to get command and control back up within a month at most…

    1. My bet is that the 100KHz transponder up/down link frequencies in the s-band have been reallocated for ISM :) And The entire planet is radiating out “noise” on those frequencies these days, so it would require DSN equipment to get a clean signal through the planet wide noise floor. Something just does not smell right to me as well.

  11. Does anyone have any position information that they can share? I work at the Arecibo Observatory, and there’s a chance I can swing something. But before I go shooting my mouth off, I’d like to see if it’s viewable from here.

    AO can see from about 0 to +38 DEC, but can only see within about 16 degrees of zenith at any given time.

    1. I managed to dig up the orbital elements here:

      The actual TLE is:
      1 11004U 78079A 89201.29324000 0.00000000 +00000-0 +00000-0 0 11
      2 11004 0.0587 87.7713 0.0542062 100.0373 180.0000 0.0028228421
      3 11004 2 UNK Sun ELS93

      Not sure how accurate this still is. The file is dated 13-Jul-2007 and the information seems to be from 1989. According to the index, ISEE-3 is also reffered to as S011004 or 1978-079A.

  12. catch a ride into space via virgin galactic, (pay in bitcoin)
    catch the satellite, hack in an Android cellphone, Re-launch now useful device with good camera, sensors, storage..

  13. Hi all, If there is pointing data (nothing in JPL Horizons) I can try tracking the signal and receiving on 2217.500. This is a frequency currently in use by the NASA TDRSS fleet whereby LEO’s uplink on 2217.500/2287.500 MHz to the TDRSS. Command and control from TDRSS comes back down around 2.1GHz. If I can catch a signal happy to make I/Q recordings available for folks to post-process.

  14. A fun idea to bench race, but many things keep it from being practical. The short time frame to prepare can only increase the cost of preparing just the radio communications equipment. 15 years have passed since the status of the bird was known, so we have consider the possibility the satellite could arrive unusable, and the money spent to prepare will fly by with it. In the event donations the prep can be funded by -5-10-15-20-25-50+ dollar individual donations, the disappointment shouldn’t hurt anyone financially, although where would be some that would have significant investment. A totalitarian government like China could try to establish control of the satellite to put it in Earth orbit so all the world can receive any data it can still generate and transmit as a poke inn the eye of NASA/USA. My location is probably immune from licensed or unlicensed radio stations that my be using any down link spectrum, I would allow a receiving station installed here to stream the data to the web.

  15. Even if there is enough fuel to get it into orbit, it is not a good idea. It will just become a rogue satellite and could cause Billions of dollars in damage to functioning satellites, shuttles, the space station, etc. better to send it somewhere safe.

  16. Does anyone know if the uplink requires a constant carrier for the satellite to receive the signal? If it is possible to communicate using brief ‘burps’, then it greatly simplifies the thermal and power supply requirements of the amplifier.

    Second, has anyone here determined where the satellite will be located during the critical communication period? What signal strength does the satellite require to receive? (In other words, what equation would describe the amplifier power requirements as a function of antenna size?)

    1. Well… background noise is variable, ionosphere is variable, current condition of the receiver and it’s antennas is unknown… And you only get one shot!

      Your equation is pretty simple… how much power can you afford?

      1. Pardon the late reply, but I was actually wondering about using a troposcatter amplifier. The S-band falls within their frequency range. They’re capable of much higher power levels if reconfigured to operate in a burst mode though. But again, the unknown for me is the transmission distance, and whether or not the probe requires a carrier for a long period of time to lock on to (eg, if burst communications are possible.)

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