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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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!