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Headshot of Emily Lakdawalla

ICE/ISEE-3 to return to an Earth no longer capable of speaking to it

Posted by Emily Lakdawalla

07-02-2014 10:47 CST

Topics: mission status, comet Halley armada

I've periodically reported on the status of the International Sun-Earth Explorer (ISEE-3), a spacecraft that was launched in 1978 to study Earth's magnetosphere and repurposed in 1983 to study two comets. Renamed the International Cometary Explorer (ICE), it has been in a heliocentric orbit since then, traveling just slightly faster than Earth. It's finally catching up to us from behind, and will return to Earth in August. It's still functioning, broadcasting a carrier signal that the Deep Space Network successfully detected in 2008. Twelve of its 13 instruments were working when we last checked on its condition, sometime prior to 1999.

International Sun-Earth Explorer (ISEE-3)


International Sun-Earth Explorer (ISEE-3)
The International Sun-Earth Explorer (ISEE-3) launched in 1978 on a mission to study Earth’s magnetosphere. In 1983, it became ICE, the International Cometary Explorer, and was sent on a new mission to study comets Giacobini-Zinner and Halley.

When I last reported on ISEE-3, I wrote:

A big question is whether we even still know how to communicate with the spacecraft. It was built in the 1970s, at the same time as the Voyagers. But we've been in continuous communication with the Voyagers since their launch; the same isn't true of ICE. So the first step is for a team at Goddard Space Flight Center to research that question. Can we figure out how to talk to ICE? What will those communications cost?

It's with great sadness that I report today that the Goddard Space Flight Center team has determined that we cannot, in fact, communicate with this spacecraft. Two days, ago, the following was posted on the ISEE3returns Facebook page:

Communication involves speaking, listening and understanding what we hear. One of the main technical challenges the ISEE-3/ICE project has faced is determining whether we can speak, listen, and understand the spacecraft and whether the spacecraft can do the same for us. Several months of digging through old technical documents has led a group of NASA engineers to believe they will indeed be able to understand the stream of data coming from the spacecraft. NASA's Deep Space Network (DSN) can listen to the spacecraft, a test in 2008 proved that it was possible to pick up the transmitter carrier signal, but can we speak to the spacecraft? Can we tell the spacecraft to turn back on its thrusters and science instruments after decades of silence and perform the intricate ballet needed to send it back to where it can again monitor the Sun? The answer to that question appears to be no.

The transmitters of the Deep Space Network, the hardware to send signals out to the fleet of NASA spacecraft in deep space, no longer includes the equipment needed to talk to ISEE-3. These old-fashioned transmitters were removed in 1999. Could new transmitters be built? Yes, but it would be at a price no one is willing to spend. And we need to use the DSN because no other network of antennas in the US has the sensitivity to detect and transmit signals to the spacecraft at such a distance.

This effort has always been risky with a low probability of success and a near-zero budget. It is thanks to a small and dedicated group of scientists and engineers that we were able to get as far as we have. Thank you all very much.

I followed up with Leonard Garcia, who has been one of the leaders of the attempt to regain control of ISEE-3, to ask what, in fact, the cost was. He told me that when the Deep Space Network realized what was going to be involved in regaining this capability, they did not even proceed as far as developing a cost estimate; "they decided this wasn't going to be possible."

How could this happen? Well, the fact that ISEE-3 is still broadcasting a carrier signal was actually an error; it should have been shut down. If they had planned for it to still be functioning at this point, they would have maintained the capability to communicate with it. I don't comprehend the intricacies of deep-space communications well enough to understand the obstacles here, and I don't question their conclusion, but that doesn't make me any less sad.

So ISEE-3 will pass by us, ready to talk with us, but in the 30 years since it departed Earth we've lost the ability to speak its language. I wonder if ham radio operators will be able to pick up its carrier signal -- it's meaningless, I guess, but it feels like an honorable thing to do, a kind of salute to the venerable ship as it passes by.

See other posts from February 2014


Or read more blog entries about: mission status, comet Halley armada


Patrick Noonan: 02/07/2014 11:24 CST

We still have the capability of communicating with some of space-minded billionaires here on Earth. If any of you out there are listening: There's a very cool, high-impact science project waiting for some funding, and a nice technology puzzle (with some good bragging rights attached to success) just waiting for the team that can solve it!

Aaron Harper: 02/07/2014 11:33 CST

The answer is yes, ham radio can, but this would probably mean operating outside the designated ham radio bands. If a request went out from NASA and the FCC allowed it, my bet is that we could regain control of this valuable part of our spaceflight legacy.

hankering: 02/07/2014 11:44 CST

Second that, would the Planetary Society please nudge NASA and the FCC to request the ham operators to look into trying to accomplish this contact. We all waved at Saturn -- now how about we wave at ISEE3? Perhaps a distributed array of ham stations could coordinate well enough to emulate a big antenna? Hams love a challenge. And the next time something comes creeping up to Earth transmitting a signal nobody's prepared to handle -- we'd have the experience of trying. You never know. -- N6VSB

wxsby: 02/07/2014 12:06 CST

Arron & Hankering are absolutely right. If the frequencies and mode were made available, I wouldn't be surprised if there are hams who have the capability of doing it right now.

Rob: 02/07/2014 12:55 CST

Sounds like more of a lack of interest than money... NASA Goddard could not even be bothered to generate a cost estimate? Anotehr wate od resources and effort. Need some interested people over there in Maryland, I think. Here is where the Planetary Society needs to step up!!!

Gene: 02/07/2014 12:56 CST

Patrick (or anyone else), while "very cool", what is the "high-impact science" here? What would communicating with ISEE3 bring us that we aren't learning from other devices? I'd like to understand what we're missing out on.

Aaron Harper: 02/07/2014 01:13 CST

To all who doubt hams can do it, google EME (moonbounce) and/or have a look at what this gentleman can do: NASA, you need to quit telling the world what you can't do and partner with those who can.

Aaron Harper: 02/07/2014 01:26 CST

Gene: this probe has traveled farther than anything else we have ever gotten back. Park it off ISS and have SpaceX build the next resupply Dragon with a little extra propellant for an inspection tour. This would be a minimal cost way to examine structures and electronics subjected to long duration exposure to both micrometeorites and solar wind. Given the solar activity since then, we can probably asume solid CME hits as well. Combine and reconcile this data with that from LDEF ( to get a better idea of what a trip to Mars would entail at a minimal cost.

SteveZ: 02/07/2014 02:07 CST

Why not ask Goddard to put the ICE/ISEE-3 communication specifications on the web? Open source the problem, and see if someone comes up with something clever?

Elias Lostrom: 02/07/2014 02:51 CST

Probably speaks in source code or fortran... good luck.

James Harvard: 02/07/2014 07:03 CST

Speaking as someone with near-zero relevant experience I can well believe that recreating hardware designed and built in the mid-1970s to communicate with this spacecraft would indeed be an implausibly hard project for a big - dare I say bureaucratic? - organisation like NASA. *However*, I would also believe that a communications system that once required racks full of hand-built electronics could now be emulated in software on a $300 laptop. OK, now people would have to hand-build the code instead, but as other have said there would doubtless be lots of enthusiastic volunteers for that, as well as the rather important step of rigging up the result to an antenna and pointing it all in the right direction. Could the specifications be obtained by a freedom of information request? However, perhaps there's a security consideration in open-sourcing the problem. Is there a risk that someone could try to 'hack' the craft and do something destructive?

Dan Ballard: 02/07/2014 07:03 CST

Quinn Norton ‏@quinnnorton 7m Such a cry for a kickstarter.

thawkins: 02/07/2014 08:19 CST

Yes, turn the problem over to the community, modern software defined radio (sdr), can at least generate signaling across a very wide range of frequencies, after that it becomes a power amplification problem and antenae design problem. If nasa would provide the data, i am sure the community would be able to rise to the occasion. However it sounds if tine is running out.

Anonymous: 02/07/2014 09:51 CST I think this settles the question of the reception (or at least detection) capability of some ham operators in the DSN microwave bands. Isn't this fantastic?

Achim Vollhardt: 02/08/2014 12:07 CST

Emily, please check your email.. Thanks!

OvineAviation: 02/08/2014 02:36 CST

I would absolutely throw money at any kickstarter set up to save ICE, and I'm certain there are tens of thousands of others who would as well. This is a project that somebody at the Planetary Society needs to start.

TerraHertz: 02/08/2014 06:49 CST

It might be a little harder than you think. Satellites typically use some kind of encryption on the command channel, since no one wants to find their satellite has been hijacked. Even back in 1978 that was likely the case. So when they say 'decommissioned the transmitters' what they probably mean is 'threw out the data encryption hardware.' If they also threw out the design files (and remember these are the people who shredded the Saturn 5 engineering plans), there's pretty much no chance of talking to ISEE-3. No matter how many enthusiastic and capable hams try. Radio transmitters and antennas are easy. Yes, hams could do that part. But the packet structure and encryption - not easy. Give NASA another brown star.

Jim: 02/08/2014 10:07 CST

While hams are resourceful (I am one, W6RMK), I don't think they'd have the necessary radiated power, etc. that's available at a DSN station. And, as pointed out earlier in the thread, a clever person could probably duplicate all the "bit level" stuff that was done in hardware in some programmable platform (like the USRP), although to be done well is probably not "the work of 2 people in a garage for a weekend". There are other practical issues: you'd need to do compatibility tests and other verifications to make sure you were "doing it right". That might be challenging to do in a way that will satisfy the authorities. One could claim that you need a waiver for those rules based on exigencies of the situation, but that's not cheap either. It might be easier to just do the testing than to write enough justification for the waiver. If, in fact, the uplink is encrypted, then if you don't have the keys, there's no point in continuing. However, encryption is by no means certain.. until recently, uplink security was assured more by the fact that relatively few people have a 30+ meter dish and a 50 kilowatt transmitter to feed it, than by cryptographic means; in the 70s, there were even fewer people capable of radiating the signal, and in general, they all play nice together as far as deep space goes. Ultimately, this might be a situation of there's dozens of worthy things to spend time and money on and we can't afford to do them all.

Paolo: 02/08/2014 12:01 CST

for radio hams, I have posted a few (hopefully useful) links to UMSF:

OE4KMC: 02/08/2014 01:01 CST

first and foremost: spacecraft back then spoke IRIG-106 ( these days they speak CCSDS, but that didn't exist back then ). URL's. Example implementations: Back then, satellites were primitive by todays standards - there were no on board processors, just sequencers with hardwired sequences. Encryption back then wasn't an issue. Forget about that. What it comes down to is: - Get the spaceprobe command/telemetry docs ( what command does what, what data are on what channel ). - Get a USRP/umTRX/BladeRF/HackRF Jawbreaker or such. - Get a sufficiently strong power amp - Get a preamp with preselection filter - Get GNURadio or RedHawk and use their graphical design environment and design a transceiver (or modify one of the existing designs like multimode, gqrx or the like. - Hack on the above IRIG-code - Get a big antenna, e.g. this one: It has the advantage to come with a crew of hams who pull off just anything, like this: In the above project they cooperated with NASA and NOAA. One of the key guys: My proposal: GSFC should contact James Miller, G3RUH and tell him what they want and work with him. I'm pretty sure they will like that project. 73 de Karl-Max

W9GB: 02/08/2014 01:09 CST

I agree with Karl-Max. Talent is there -- throw it to open community. Too many at Goddard veterans are now retired or their work has been turned over to "contractors" with little STEM interest (but $$$ motivation). The European Space Agency’s (ESA) Rosetta comet-seeking probe has been heard by James Miller, G3RUH. He reports reception of Rosetta when it was at a distance of some 500 million miles from Earth. James accomplished this feat using the 20m dish at the Bochum observatory in Germany at 0934UTC on 21 January., 2014. AMSAT-DL and AMSAT-UK can gain access to this refurbished dish The frequency was 8421.7869MHz at the spacecraft. ISEE program was joiunt NASA/ESA in the first place. Rosetta was Bertrand Pinel, F5PL, in France, also received Rosetta using a 3.5m dish.

GW6KZZ: 02/08/2014 02:53 CST

I find it very disconcerting that the people who built and launched these probes are not required to maintain the equipment to communicate to and monitor the frequency of these probes and satellites; each International government have a requirement of the designers to be able to turn off our satellites if they interfere with any other freq. trouble with NASA and ESA is they are more commercial oriented rather than scientists with a challenge to talk to their own space craft. With regards to James G3RUH, AMSAT-DL & AMSAT-UK being able to develop and try to communicate with this spacecraft, I am sure they are very much the talented people who could achieve this goal if they have the time, money and support,. These days DSP and SDR equipment makes this task a much easier challenge and I am sure the Bochum 20 metre dish would be an advantage. I think it is wait and see if our talented radio amateurs have the time and money to try. But first someone must approach these kind people to see if they are willing and have the time to spare.

InCognitotempo: 02/08/2014 05:37 CST

This incredible "cannot read any more" situation applies to all kind of documents on earth, and it is sad. NASA being NASA and not reading the probes data opens a variety of hypothesis about reasons why. (Good) reasons not to read that information may have nothing to do with science or money? Maybe undisclosed military, political or alike reasons are at stake. The "lets do it for science" tone of most of the previous comments is heart warming. I sure do not want to break that momentum. My suggestion is more an invitation for fiction work since I am afraid inspiration is all we can obtain from the probe at this time.

Jim: 02/08/2014 07:29 CST

"I find it very disconcerting that the people who built and launched these probes are not required to maintain the equipment to communicate to and monitor the frequency of these probes and satellites;" Requirements for monitoring have more to do with probability of interfering with something. It's unlikely that the spacecraft will interfere with anything, so hence, no need for monitoring. "trouble with NASA and ESA is they are more commercial oriented rather than scientists with a challenge to talk to their own space craft" This is most certainly not the case. NASA, at least, is all about science. But NASA and ESA operate in an environment of limited resources (and not just money.. people). Would you rather have money and unique skills working on trying to command a 30 year old spacecraft or developing the next new spacecraft headed for Mars, Europa, Venus, or somewhere else fun. We can't do both. While developing the software and hardware to command and listen to ISEE-3 would be an interesting puzzle, I think that resources might be better directed to more productive ends like developing ways for small satellites to communicate with each other efficiently, or automation of ground and flight operations, etc.

GW6KZZ: 02/08/2014 08:48 CST

Whilst I agree this spacecraft might not electronically interfere with any other equipment in orbit around Earth, it may hit something orbiting then we could have a cascade effect and millions more pieces of space debris just like we did when two satellites struck each other. I know NASA and ESA have limited budgets but who launched it should be responsible for the spacecraft and should be able to command it until it has been destroyed not just dumped in space. Regarding old or new technology and using unique skills, we still have a lot to learn from the past never mind the future. Why can't we have both? Just because we are old we should be put out to grass or in this spacecraft's case is destined to travel in decreasing circles until it hits something solid, ouch! hope it is not us? Oh I totally agree with you about getting Nano, Micro and many other satellites should be able to communicate between each other and the ground, self automation and AI is one way to go, but lets not forget what we have put into space and continue to make maximum use of everything we launch. If those NASA and ESA space engineers have retired, how about bring them back to talk to their spacecraft, past engineers know how it was made and how to fix it, these days most technicians are just fitters installing or removing units not working rather than working with individual components to fix the problem. The film Space Cowboys comes quickly to mind, old technicians work better on old spacecraft, and they are cheaper! Personally I would like to see the puzzle solved and someone commanding this old well travelled spacecraft (SC) rather than just stick another few dozen new pieces of space debris in orbit which history will repeat itself all over again then lets not talk to that SC too. Time we cleared up space of what human's sent up in the first place! Conservation first not spend billions of new space junk.

OvineAviation: 02/09/2014 01:18 CST

It is likely too late to find a fix before it is too late to put it into orbit around an L point before the required DV becomes too great, but the predicament of ICE begs the question; if this spacecraft still is operational decades longer than expected, what else in the solar system might still be operational? Could any of the Pioneer or Mariner probes still be functional? Viking orbiters? Giotto? It might be worthwhile to set up a program to try to resurrect such old spacecraft for new missions.

StephenRamsden: 02/09/2014 06:03 CST

thanks for a well written article on a subject I was unfamiliar with Emily. Keep up the good work.

Edgar J. Kaiser: 02/10/2014 12:20 CST

I am pretty sure that NASA and ESA could transmit and command the probe as well as receive the response, if any. They don't need the old transmitters. The old protocols can be emulated by software on the modern systems and the S-Band frequencies are within the current bandplans. They just aren't interested and probably they aren't interested in amateurs making a contact as well. If the amateur community just had the ephemerides of the probe it would probably be easy to track the carrier. Last time I looked I could receive the MOM S-band carrier at a distance of 12 million km with my 1 m dish. There are a couple of guys with larger antennas.

OE4KMC: 02/11/2014 09:37 CST

The AMSAT community is already looking into it: Also check out the links given in the discussion - valuable info in there. Some more info on the comms system: The whole design is rather crappy, particularly the subcarrier bullshit, but quite common back then. And yes, it speaks IRIG-106 (with some convolutional coding thrown over it on the TM side). If anybody thinks the EME community doesn't have serious equipment in sufficient number, look here And yes, there are are some older radiotelescopes taken over by amateurs: This one is in Canada Besides Bochum, there is also Astropeiler Stockert with a 10m and a 25m dish: Actually, there is another one in Weilheim with a 30m dish, where even a 20kW S-Band PA is available ( the HT supply, however, needs fixing ) in some ( unspecified ) state of eventually taken over by Amsat-DL. In the Netherlands, hams have taken over the famous Dwingeloo radio telescape: It has a 25m dish and is combined with the famous Twente websdr project: In fact, the ham community has just about everything needed to take things over from NASA/ESA in that matter. 73 de Karl-Max

Anonymous: 02/11/2014 09:39 CST

Continuation: According to my (rather crude) estimations ISEE-3 should be somewhere 16 million kilometers from earth right now. Receiving its carrier according to my calculations should already (barely) possible using a 1m dish (1 db S/N in this case assuming an antenna noise temperature of 30 K). With a 2m dish it sure isn't a problem. On the TC side the Weilheim station is a MUST as it has the requisite high power necessary due to the shit with the subcarriers. Even with that we only get a link margin of only 1.7 db (at least when we assume a TC receiver bandwidth of 100 kHz which was usual at the time - and you cannot go below 50kHz due to the upper subcarrier of 9.3 kHz - but I'd almost bet it's 100kHz. I also assumed a braindead TC receiver design using a standard FM detector and not a PLL detector - which wouldn't actually help a lot ). 73 de Karl-Max

Tretos: 02/13/2014 07:34 CST

It would be great to gain contact with that spacecraft, it would be amazing actually, but correct me if I'm wrong: I don't think nasa will give technical details to public as its can be used to send spacecraft on a collision course with something else, also at some point we will have to do something with that spacecraft as it will stop functioning, become flying bullet. Don't get me wrong I love this idea of contacting it as its flying piece of history and maybe should be parked somewhere safe or captured? Adam

Telluric: 02/14/2014 08:11 CST

Its great reading these comments! What a great opportunity! While I accept that NASA is being reasonable to not spend taxpayer money on recovering ISEE-3 [gee they can be penny wise], it does offer this as an opportunity for independent groups to do something pretty monumental. But NASA needs to cooperate and not create resistance. This would make a fantastic story and would be a milestone event.

Edgar J. Kaiser: 02/19/2014 04:18 CST

Emily pointed me to a very useful website that provides trajectory data for ISEE-3/ICE and many other space probes. That is I wrote a converter to transform their data to local Azimuth/Elevation/range data. I f you are interested in tracking ISEE-3/ICE send me an e-mail with your Latitude, Longitude and Altitude and I send you an ephemeris file for your location spanning current date to August 11, that is closest approach. Send your message to

Edgar J. Kaiser: 02/21/2014 11:38 CST

UPDATE: I got a couple of inquiries for ISEE-3/ICE ephemerides which I could respond to with respective data. As of today the probe has been added to JPLs HORIZONS system ( ). This is of course much more versatile than my conversion from TIPSOD. Pointing agreement is excellent, deviations between converted TIPSOD and HORIZONS being better than 0.005 degrees. Thanks again Emily for pointing me to TIPSOD! Of course I have tried to detect ISEE-3s carrier, but no success so far. 45 mio km is likely too far for my small antenna, I will have to wait until it is closer.

David Key: 03/03/2014 09:34 CST

Be careful what we wish for....

Tom: 03/04/2014 11:18 CST

The answer is yes, Ovine. Pioneers 6, 7, and 8 remain in heliocentric orbit and as far as anyone knows still have functioning instruments and are capable of communication. I remain baffled as to why nobody told them to keep transmitting.

M5AKA: 03/09/2014 11:12 CDT

Congratulations to those radio amateurs at the Bochum facility who received the signal from ISEE-3 on March 1-2

dangerousdave: 03/10/2014 09:05 CDT

Hi. To Karl-Marx. Any info as to what the problem is exactly, with the HV PSU for the 20kW PA at Weilheim? Also, what is the main PA active device? Depending on that, even if the PSU is repaired, it may be troublesome to get going safely (for the active device) in the available time. 73. DD (Fixer of high power RF things.)

OE4KMC: 03/14/2014 03:00 CDT

dangerousdave wrote > Any info as to what the problem is exactly, with the HV PSU for the 20kW PA No. Back when the Munich Amsat crew was active in Weilheim they just had a cursory look at things. > at Weilheim? Also, what is the main PA active device? Depending on that, A Varian internal cavity klystron, tunable from 2.2 to 2.3 GHz - which is already the problem: uplink in our case is below that. > even if the PSU is repaired, it may be troublesome to get going safely (for > the active device) in the available time. I know you first have to prime it or in other words "heat it out" to avoid destructive arcovers. > 73. > DD Your call ? 73 de Karl-Max, OE4KMC

Anonymous: 03/14/2014 03:04 CDT

For news see also: ( sorry, German, but the next page is English and tells what equipment they are running in Bochum. ) The last sentence is interesting: Vor dem Hintergrund der nun vorliegenden Erkenntnisse und der in Bochum vorhandenen Empfangstechnik überprüft man erneut, wie man wirtschaftlich vertretbar auch ein entsprechendes Sendesystem realisieren könnte. means: Based on the knowledge gained and the reception equipment in Bochum we look into how to realize an economically feasible transmission system. In order to find out more I contacted some insiders: the Bochum guys are looking for a S-Band PA capable of delivering 2 kW, preferably a magnetron ( they already have one phaselocked for 2320MHz ). So if they get one with the lower frequency needed they can drop it into the existing circuitry. Their USRP does the rest.... So expect the next news will be: control over probe gained, resuming mission. 73 de Karl-Max, OE4KMC

Neal McBurnett: 03/18/2014 09:15 CDT

New story at NPR says John's Hopkins' 18-m dish has the right hardware, and approval to try to establish contact!

gpapadakis: 04/27/2014 10:03 CDT

I see that there is a crowdfunding page for this, I wonder what other posters think. I have yet to contribute, I did last year for the Planetary Resources project on Kickstarter, I wonder why they when with the less well known (I understand the rules say no links, but this isn't spam.)

Anonymous: 08/10/2014 11:47 CDT

That...................... Was the Most Amazing-Entertaining Things I have Ever Read.

OE4KMC: 09/04/2014 03:29 CDT

Hi Anonymous, it gets even more amazing: you see my last comment where I predicted that next time the news would be control over probe gained, resuming mission. Well, it came like that. May 29, 2014. And I was at the helm of it, being the radio systems wrangler of the ISEE-3 Reboot project. My strategy was exactly as set out in my posts further up - and it worked like a charm. From the first cosiderations to contact in 6 weeks. I think that broke all records that ever existed in the history of space exploration by orders of magnitude. Of course soft radio aka SDR played a big role in it - this was my strategy from the outset - using the graphical development tools todays major toolsets (GNURadio and RedhawkSDR) offer.This way the whole setup could be achieved in under a week. In fact the most time consuming thing was our custom made PA custom made by DK2FD (Dirk Fischer) after nothing was forthcoming in the US. Dirk almost worked himself to death to get the PA ready. A few days after it arrived in Arecibo contact was established. The whole action proved that NASA was plain wrong with their prediction of that being next to impossible and next to infinitely expensive. The people that initially maintained that most probably now have to fear for their jobs. Roumor has it that at NASA I am Public Enemy #1 with quite a few people. Well, understandable. But they should not hate me, but their own incompetence, which obviously I exposed by helping getting the impossible done in 6 weeks. 73's de Karl-Max, OE4KMC

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