NASA ‘IMAGE’ Satellite Believed Dead Long Ago May Have Just Come Back to Life

NASA’s Imager for Magnetopause to Aurora Global Exploration, or IMAGE, spacecraft during processing. Photo: NASA

NASA’s first satellite dedicated to imaging the Earth’s magnetosphere, the ‘Imager for Magnetopause to Aurora Global Exploration’ mission, was declared dead in 2005 after a successful 5.8 years of operations. But a satellite tracker on the hunt for the now infamous ZUMA may have just accidentally found it, alive, and NASA is taking notice.

Amateur visual and radio astronomer Scott Tilley (radio amateur VE7TIL), who runs a blog dedicated to observing (mostly classified) satellites called Riddles in the Sky, was scanning the heavens recently for new targets of interest, triggered by the launch of ZUMA and the possibility that it may actually be in orbit and not dead after all (remember, it was “anonymous government sources” who told Wall Street Journal the satellite was lost, nothing is official).

Discovery plot above obtained of IMAGE and the first fit attempt that lead to revealing it’s identity. Credit: Scott Tilley

Instead, in his data he found a curve “consistent with a satellite in High Earth Orbit on 2275.905MHz”, and then began investigating to identify the source.

“A quick identity scan using ‘strf’ (sat tools rf) revealed the signal to come from 2000-017A, 26113, called IMAGE, said Tilley in a detailed blog post about his exciting discovery.

Not thinking anything much of it, he continued looking for ZUMA, but more data was suggesting he was on to something, so he monitored the satellite some more while also continuing on his search for ZUMA.

NASA’s IMAGE mission was by all accounts a success, having fulfilled its primary mission of two years. Launched atop a Delta-II rocket from Vandenberg AFB on March 25, 2000, the satellite aimed to study the global response of Earth’s magnetosphere to changes in the solar wind like never before, revealing secrets of a previously invisible region of space to scientists.

Launch of NASA’s IMAGE spacecraft atop a Delta II rocket from Vandenberg AFB on March 25, 2000, at 20:34:43 UT. Photo: Boeing Space Systems

The mission made 37 unique scientific discoveries, you can read all about the mission HERE.

But in December 2005, during its extended mission, IMAGE’s telemetry signals were not received during a routine pass, and it was unresponsive to commands from ground controllers. Further analysis indicated its power supply subsystems failed, rendering it dead in space.

A Failure Review Board was established, and their final report blamed an, “induced ‘instant trip’ of the Solid Sate Power Controller (SSPC) supplying power to the transponder.”

However, the report left open the unlikely possibility that IMAGE could return to life one day.

“The October 2007 eclipse season may permit a Transponder SSPC reset (and a re-powering of the Transponder), but this is not certain given that the main bus reset level may really be 21 V. If revival occurs, the mission should be able to continue as before with no limitations,” notes the report.

NASA’s IMAGE mission helped scientists better understand how solar storms affect the Earth, corrected misconceptions about Earth’s magnetic field and radiation belts, and helped to better understand why we have Aurora – along with many other things. Photo: Mike Killian

As stated by Tilley, surely NASA was paying attention throughout 2007 for this small possibility that IMAGE would be revived, but it obviously didn’t happen, or NASA would have been on top of it.

But the satellite actually enters an eclipse periodically, orbiting with a 90 degree inclination, which puts it periodically into an eclipse, and if Tilley is right, it would appear the spacecraft eventually did what NASA had always hoped for – just not in 2007.

Going back to Tilley’s data, more and more it was appearing he found IMAGE, now alive, and NASA is taking his findings seriously, but being cautious too, as the agency is not actually 100% sure yet if it is IMAGE Tilley has found.

“We’re still not sure it really is IMAGE, but we are working to identify people knowledgeable about the mission after all this time and working on getting all the appropriate scripts and software in-place just in case it is IMAGE,” said Jeff Hayes, a heliophysics scientist at NASA HQ in DC, in an email to AmericaSpace this afternoon.

The IMAGE Solar Array team at LMMS: Standing (l to r): Bruno Cutler, Judy Leonard, John Leary Jr, Scott Gardner, James Clifford. Sitting (l to r): Karen Guerrero, Dan Goodman, Henry Dallas, Zenida Dingle, Linda Lara, Marilee Soden, Ione Simmons, Jon Hone, Todd Gilbert, Rick Sanchez, Mike Kwiatkowski, Nancy Ong, Mike McCormick. Photo: NASA

“We don’t know all the answers yet, but looking forward to finding out!” he added.

Other amateur astronomer and satellite trackers are starting to confirm Tilley’s discovery too.

“Paul Marsh in England has confirmed IMAGE is still transmitting today,” says Tilley. “The spacecraft is high over Russia at the moment (Jan 24).”

Make sure to take a look at Tilley’s blog detailing his data and discovery HERE!

When NASA confirms the data, we’ll let you know, stay tuned!

 

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4 comments to NASA ‘IMAGE’ Satellite Believed Dead Long Ago May Have Just Come Back to Life

  • Chris

    Crazy, what a unique find.

  • ArtK

    Thank you for an informative, well written and researched article. Unlike some others on this topic you went to the original source (Tilley’s blog), included a graphic of his work, included accurate, extensive background and related information as well as placing it all in context. It is informative across a wide spectrum of audiences and highlights the important contributions of amateur scientists. The combination of the timeliness of the article as well as the effort expended in research speaks well for your publication.

    As a technically oriented citizen with limited astronomical knowledge I was blown away by Scott’s dedication, skills and the sophistication of his equipment and software. That cannot be cheap nor simple.

    I look forward to more informative articles from this site.

    • Thank you! We found Scott’s discovery just as incredible as NASA did. Appreciate the comment.

      • Mike Killian
        Managing Editor / AmericaSpace
    • Tracy the Troll

      ArtK,
      I too am quite impressed with the ability of a “citizen space investigator” What is the estimated cost of his required equipment? Is that $1,000s or $10,000s or $100,000s ?