NASA IMAGE: Long-Lost Satellite Tech Is So Old NASA Can't Read It

NASA is racing to confirm if a long-lost satellite has really been tracked down by amateur astronomer Scott Tilley, who recently picked up mysterious signals matching the long-dead IMAGE spacecraft. 

But the space agency hasn't yet been able to verify the origin of the signals because of a major roadblock: the relentless advance of technology.

Launched in 2000, the 18-year-old satellite is now so outdated NASA can’t decode the data behind its signals. The space agency will have to take its computer systems back into the past to crack its contents and solve the mystery of the resurrected satellite.

1_29_IMAGE Satellite_02 NASA's IMAGE, pictured in early 2000. NASA

Over the weekend, NASA used five antennae to map the mysterious radio frequency signals. A NASA statement released Monday said: “Observations from all five sites were consistent with the radio frequency characteristics expected of IMAGE.”

Before the space agency can confirm the object really is IMAGE, however, it needs to read the data hidden in those signals.

Mission center technology no longer exists

“The types of hardware and operating systems used in the IMAGE Mission Operations Center no longer exist, and other systems have been updated several versions beyond what they were at the time, requiring significant reverse-engineering,” the statement explained.

IMAGE was launched the same year as the Nokia 3310, Sony’s Playstation 2 and the first mass market e-book, Stephen King’s Riding the Bullet. It is also the same year the dawn of a new millenium was supposed to blindside digital calendars and make planes fall out of the sky. Luckily for NASA, IMAGE probably isn't carrying the Millenium Bug, as Y2K never really materialized.

Invaluable scientific payload

1_30_Aurora Borealis The aurora borealis lights up the sky. Auroras indicate the presence of the Earth's magnetic field. The magnetosphere was the target of NASA's IMAGE mission. Niccolò Ubalducci/Flickr

While its mission computers might no longer exist, the spacecraft’s scientific payload is still impressive. Patricia Reiff, space plasma physicist at Rice University, Houston, and co-investigator on the mission, previously explained to Science: “It is really invaluable for now-casting space weather and really understanding the global response of the magnetosphere to solar storms.”

IMAGE was engineered to produce comprehensive global pictures of charged particles moving through the Earth’s magnetosphere. Launched in 2000, the successful two-year mission was extended before the satellite failed to make contact. NASA declared the mission to be over when the craft failed to reboot during a 2007 eclipse. 

According to Reiff, IMAGE's capability has never really been replaced. The idea that it might have somehow restarted, she said, is thrilling.

If NASA can get some old-fashioned systems going and decode the signal data, it will try and rekindle the science payload. At the moment, the scientific instruments themselves are still switched off.

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