Satellites That are Old Enough to Drink = Engineering Win

A couple years ago in grad school I did a small project involving a still-working satellite that was about 25 years old. The tech told me that a few years before he had been able to joke that the satellite was old enough to drink, but now he was even starting to see grad students who were younger than the satellite.

The satellite was still usable and perfectly functional – if one was able to use the punch-cards and their old corresponding IBM machine to communicate. At the time, it completely amazed me that engineers in the late 1970s had designed something so robust that it had made it so very far past its 10-year design life. Pardon me for the cheesy phrase, but we just don’t make ’em like we used to.

Today, though, something happened that blows that story out of the water. If you hadn’t heard, there’s an old NASA spacecraft called the International Sun-Earth Explorer 3 (ISEE-3) that’s been reactivated. It’s a 36-year-old probe that was retired back in 1997. It’s so old that NASA no longer has the infrastructure (the right deep space antenna network transmitters) to communicate with it.

Photo (artist’s rendering) from NASA science website: http://science.nasa.gov/media/medialibrary/2010/03/31/isee.gif

A private group called the ISEE-3 Reboot Project recently crowdfunded about $150,000 and got NASA’s permission to reactivate it. They came up with an inexpensive way to resume communications. Today they successfully commanded it to maneuver, and it fired engines for the first time since 1987.

One of the team members that reactivated this spacecraft wasn’t even born yet last time the satellite maneuvered, let alone when it was designed and launched.  And at least one of the instruments onboard is still working.  That’s some seriously good engineering and craftsmanship, people.

You can read more about today’s success in the Scientific American article here, or you can follow the ISEE-3 Project Reboot team at their website, on Twitter, or on Facebook.

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