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Big-budget, Low-budget & Recycled Space Explorers

 As I type this, a dramatic rescue operation is underway far out in space. OK it’s not exactly Apollo 13 and the spacecraft involved is an old unmanned NASA science probe called ISEE-3 launched back in 1978. At the same time the first ‘official’ UK CubeSat UKube-1 has begun orbiting the Earth. These low-budget projects have rather overshadowed the approaching climax of the big-budget ESA Rosetta mission to land a probe on a comet.

The International Sun/Earth Explorer 3 (ISEE-3) later re-tasked as the International Cometary Explorer (ICE) was pretty well shut down and apart from an occasional check to see if it was still alive, forgotten about until someone remembered that it was approaching Earth again. A group of engineers formed the ISEE-3 Reboot Project funded by a Kickstarter campaign and with permission and help from NASA re-established contact. Their aim is to re-light the engines and get it back into an orbit where it can do useful data gathering again given that most of the sensor equipment still works after 16 years. An attempt to fire the thrusters for trajectory change was made last week and each step was Tweeted via their Twitter channel @ISEE3Reboot . Unlikely as it seems, it was quite a nail-biting experience scrolling down my timeline following the live action from ‘mission control‘ (based in a re-cycled MacDonalds restaurant).

The attempt was unsuccessful, but a plea for help brought a cascade of advice from engineers around the world. Who says engineers and scientists don’t engage with social media? Since then some thruster firing has been achieved and more is planned.  Even if ISEE-3 can’t be brought back into a more suitable orbit, it will still be in communication range for a few months and the on-board sensors are still capable of acquiring useful data – truly amazing considering that it’s been bombarded with radiation way beyond the design limit.

Meanwhile, low-budget CubeSat satellites continue to be launched, the latest being UKube-1, a pilot project of the UK Space Agency built by Clyde Space in Scotland. The satellite is a ‘technology demonstrator’ and its aim is not just to conduct experiments of limited interest to most people, but to stimulate student interest in STEM related subjects through the involvement of universities and schools. A detailed summary of the project objectives and technical details can be found here. The educational outreach part of the satellite is known as FUNcube-2 and follows on from the successful launch and operation of FUNcube-1 developed by AMSAT. A key feature of this project is the development of a FUNcube dongle, a radio receiver that plugs into a computer USB port. With the addition of a suitable antenna anybody can download the telemetry from these satellites. How’s that for public access!


                At the big-budget end of the scale the European probe Rosetta with lander Philae is closing in on its quarry comet  67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, after 10 years in space. The spacecraft should arrive at the comet in August and deploy the Philae lander in November. An interesting issue has developed over access to ‘raw’ data from the probe. At the moment pictures are being released by esa at the rate of one a week because not unreasonably, the scientists and engineers who worked on the experiments want first crack at any discoveries. This is not an issue of government agencies wanting to keep everything secret as anyone who has been following the torrents of raw picture data coming from the Curiosity rover via NASA can see. The latest pictures of 67P coming from Rosetta revealing it to be spinning and shaped like a toy plastic duck, were actually leaked. For this sort of project to be justified a much better balance must be achieved between the needs of the scientists and the public who, one way or another paid for the whole enterprise.

If you're stuck for something to do, follow my posts on Twitter. I link to interesting new electronics components and development kits (some of them available from my employer!) and retweet posts I spot about robot, space exploration and other issues.

Engineer, PhD, lecturer, freelance technical writer, blogger & tweeter interested in robots, AI, planetary explorers and all things electronic. STEM ambassador. Designed, built and programmed my first microcomputer in 1976. Still learning, still building, still coding today.

20 Jul 2014, 15:06


November 13, 2014 10:46

UPDATE: Well, Philae made it. Despite a number of problems the comet lander has done the near impossible and landed on a comet. Amazing piece of engineering when you consider the designers had no idea what the terrain would be like. Here is the first picture returned.

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August 28, 2014 14:46

UPDATE on UKube-1: Harwell we have a problem... UKube -1 is suffering from a communications 'anomaly'. The primary system appears to be giving trouble, but the secondary which forms part of the FUNCube-2 payload looks like it can rescue the situation. Fingers crossed.

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August 10, 2014 10:47

UPDATE: Rosetta completed first of a complex series of moves to get it into orbit around 67P. See how complex on this video:

Watch live updates of ISEE-3 position and science data on this new website:


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July 25, 2014 08:03

UPDATE on ISEE-3 project: Unfortunately it looks like the thrusters can't be fired to bring the probe into an Earth orbit and it will continue orbiting the sun. However there was just enough thruster power available to start it rotating at the optimum rate. Most of the science packages are being brought back on-line and efforts are now concentrated on maintaining communication. Data streamed back to Earth will be available to all making this a true Citizen Science mission. None of this would have been achieved without crowd-funding and social media - sceptical engineers and scientists take note! ... ssion.html

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