For the first time in history, an independent crew is taking control of a NASA satellite and running a crowdfunded mission. They’re doing it all from a makeshift mission control center in an abandoned McDonald’s in Mountain View, California, using old radio parts from eBay and a salvaged flat screen TV.
“If I could come up with another absurd detail, I would,” Keith Cowing, the project’s team lead, told Betabeat.
The ISEE-3 is a disco-era satellite that used to measure space weather like solar wind and radiation, but went out of commission decades ago. Now, a small team led by Mr. Cowing has taken control of the satellite with NASA’s silent blessing.
Mr. Cowing is a former NASA employee, and now runs a handful of space news sites, like NASA Watch and SpaceRef. Sitting out in the desert one night after a documentary shoot, Mr. Cowing asked Bob Farquhar, an old NASA researcher who worked with the ISEE-3 in its glory days, what it would take to bring the satellite out of retirement.
The satellite’s battery has been dead for over 20 years, but it had solar panels to power 98 percent of the satellite’s full capabilities. In its heyday, it ran missions around the Moon and Earth, and flew through the tail of a comet. But technology gets old, and everyone happily let the successful satellite go, knowing it would be back in Earth’s orbit someday—namely, 2014.
Since the satellite went offline, the team had retired, the documentation was lost and the equipment became outdated. They could still hear the satellite out there talking, but they’d need to build the equipment to talk back.
But the satellite had been built for longevity with very simple technology. To get it back would simply be like trying to make concrete with the original Roman recipe. In other words, they’d need a few outdated parts, but it could definitely be done.
“What’s so hard about that?” Mr. Cowing remembers asking.
Two weeks later, they began a crowdfunding campaign that would beat its $125,000 goal and go on to raise $160,000. Within another six weeks, a small team was in Puerto Rico, running around Arecibo Observatory running tests, hoisting a transmitter into place with a helicopter, ready to make contact.
At the outset of the crowdfunding campaign, they brought the idea to NASA, but there was no precedent on which to base an agreement. No external organization has ever taken command of a spacecraft, but NASA didn’t want to say no, so they asked the team if they needed any help.
To start, they needed space for their control center. The neighborhood near Ames Research Center in Mountain View, once a teeming hub of activity in the days of the space race, had become a shell of its former self.
“There were a few abandoned buildings—one was a barbershop, and one was an abandoned McDonald’s,” Mr. Cowing said. “Someone hit the barbershop with a truck, so we took the McDonald’s.”
Their new control center, dubbed “McMoon’s,” fit all of the criteria they needed: the doors locked, and it was free. For their console, they pulled a broken flatscreen TV from a government dumpster and fixed the power supply. The other pieces are from eBay, including a Mac laptop and some radio parts.
With just those bare-bones pieces, they were able to MacGyver a computer-radio hybrid that made contact with the ISEE-3.
Once they were able to communicate with the satellite, they established a new orbit around the Sun, slightly larger than the Earth’s orbit. It’ll remain close enough to the Earth for a while, allowing the crowd-sourced community to run tests for a long time. But for how long?
“No idea,” Mr. Cowing said. “It’s been on for 36 years, so another 36? Nobody knows. A long time.”
In the mean time, they’ll be constantly taking in solar weather data—and then sharing it with everyone.
An Open Source Satellite
Until now, when NASA wanted to conduct research, they’d collect data and disappear with it for a few months before publishing. But the data from ISEE-3 is going to be available to anyone who wants access to it. It’s a spacecraft funded by the public, and available for the public.
“We’re allowing anybody who is interested and has a computer to be able to do something with the data,” Mr. Cowing said.
Google has been helping the team build a site that will open up the data to the world. Everything coming from the satellite will be available in different formats and packages so that anyone can dig in.
The appeal of opening up the data is clear: if anyone can access the firehose, the crowd can bring back fresh new results and observations that a small academic research team might overlook. Open data and hackathons are a growing trend in staid industries like energy and infrastructure that are in desperate need of innovation, but were previously reluctant to open their doors to the masses.
“Space people have a sort of arrogance,” Mr. Cowing said. “I used to be that way, but now I’m revolted by the thought that people without a pocket protector and calculator feel like they can’t be involved.”
The world will get the first taste of what it’s like to crowdsource data from outer space this weekend. On Sunday at 2:16 a.m EST, the ISEE-3 will fly close to the moon in the first “Interplanetary Citizen Science Mission” ever undertaken. The data collected by the satellite will stream live, and there will be a Google Hangout at McMoon’s for anyone who wants to participate.
Between now and then, the team—a handful of space-age codgers and the few 20-somethings that have come aboard—will be at McMoon’s preparing their disco-era satellite for its first mission in decades.
“It’s like the Blues Brothers,” Mr. Cowing said. “The band is back together.”