NASA’s IMAGE Satellite Still Has Functional Power, Electronics Systems

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Last week, we reported on the strange case of NASA’s Image satellite. The Imager for Magnetopause-to-Aurora Global Exploration (IMAGE) was designed to observe and report on the magnetosphere of Earth. It launched in 2000 and worked flawlessly for five years before suddenly shutting down in 2005. After reboot attempts failed and the satellite refused to respond in 2007, NASA ended its mission and moved on to other projects. But several weeks ago, amateur astronomers found Image awake again.

NASA has been investigating the situation and has issued several updates since our coverage last week. Two things have occurred worthy of note. First, on Feb. 2, NASA determined it was communicating with the “A” side of the Image satellite. Because it’s so expensive to build and launch spacecraft, satellites and exploration vehicles like Curiosity are frequently designed with redundant electronics and backup systems. In this case, the Image satellite had a duplicate set of electronics, one on each side of the spacecraft.

In 2004, the Image satellite underwent what NASA characterizes as an “unexpected power distribution reboot.” When the satellite re-established communication, NASA discovered that only the “B” side electronics were functional. (NASA’s description implies that these different sets of electronics may have literally been on different sides of the satellite, though this is unclear.)

The IMAGE satellite, back on Earth in 2000.

The rest of the mission operated using just the B side electronics until that system failed unexpectedly in 2005. But today, it’s the A side that’s once again active. The organization’s write-up suggests that power should’ve been provided to both sides of the spacecraft by default. But there’s no explanation as yet for why power would’ve switched over to B, only to reboot at some point after 2007 and turn the A side on again.

New information this week suggests that the spacecraft is in surprisingly good shape for spending an unknown number of years powered down. The batteries are fully charged and nothing in NASA’s guidance suggest any issues at this point. That said, there are still significant questions the space agency hopes to answer, including why the vehicle has rebooted itself several times, why the A and B sides of the spacecraft have behaved erratically, and why it rebooted in the first place.

NASA has begun the process of attempting to recreate a small control center that could communicate with Image’s scientific payloads and begin checking the scientific instruments to see what kind of work they might still be capable of doing. The organization, however, is playing things safe and proceeding slowly.

On the one hand, NASA doesn’t have a lot of spare cashflow, satellites take years to build, and launches are expensive and always run the risk of something going wrong. It makes sense, therefore, to seize every opportunity to squeeze useful work out of any piece of hardware, so long as its economically feasible to do so. But on the other, something clearly went wrong with the Image satellite. The fact that it’s now online again with the same set of electronics that failed 13 years ago might be due to software glitches — or it could point to short circuits or other problems with the satellite that can’t be fixed without access to its internals. NASA undoubtedly wants to understand what caused the problem before it sinks a lot of time or effort into an ongoing scientific mission.

Feature image courtesy of Wikimedia

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