ISEE-3 Reboot: Vanguard of New Era of CrowdSourced Exploration

We’ve seen elements of the story before; a team of experts, some long in the tooth, are put together in order to contact a long derelict spacecraft in hopes of averting disaster. Other times the old probe comes back with a new mission, aka V’Ger or its equally confused predecessor NOMAD. One way or another, its a tool sci-fi writers can’t seem to resist.

While there was no impending catastrophe other than a lost opportunity, and the plan did not work out exactly as hoped, the  ISEE-3 re-boot project, which sought to re-purpose a science satellite first launched in 1978, is the subject of a gorgeous new website,, put together with the help of Google to tell the story of the spacecraft, its unique history and the daring project to put it back to use.

Although this particular project looked backwards in time towards a positively ancient spacecraft, it holds significant portent for the the future, and the deep well of untapped potential in crowd sourced science efforts, both in terms of garnering financial resources, and perhaps just as important, technological and engineering capability. From the Google Lunar X-Prize, to the B612 Foundation’s Sentinel Mission to Mars One, there are already numerous projects underway, but none is yet in space. By seeking to re-purpose a craft which already was, the ISEE-3 group overcame the launch barrier and earned its place in the record.

While current and future projects may lack the whimsical element of contacting a spacecraft which is older than many of the people involved, they will offer the distinct benefit of ongoing access designed in from the outset.

Given steady progress in reducing the size and an increasing the capabilities of current spacecraft, as evidenced by Planet Labs and Skybox Imaging (now being acquired by Google) it is not too difficult to envision a future in which literally hundreds of spacecraft and landers arrayed across the solar system are themselves points of contact for individuals and teams from around the world with very little in the way of official government involvement other than perpetually alarmed planetary protection officials fighting a rear guard action as exploration races ahead of protocols.

There are chokepoints of course, launch costs are still a major impediment to new projects, and anything going beyond low Earth orbit is limited by the price and availability of deep space tracking and communications capability, but both barriers will eventually fall. Indeed NASA itself seems to be looking for a commercial communications link between Mars and Earth, suggesting other elements may not be far behind.

One way or another, kudos to Keith Cowing, Dennis Wingo and the rest of the ISEE-3 reboot project for getting their efforts in getting the first such effort in the history books.

About the Author:

Post a Comment