If I told you an old NASA satellite was now being controlled by a crowd-funded, non-NASA organization of diehard space operators and scientists, you’d probably shrug. But if I also told you that they are controlling it from an old McDonald’s restaurant, one obviously no longer dedicated to burger-serving, would it at least raise an eyebrow? That’s right, the International Sun/Earth Explorer-3 (ISEE-3) satellite is controlled right out of a McDonald’s restaurant in Mountain View, Calif.
It’s actually an old McDonald’s building located in the NASA Ames Research Park right next to Moffett Field. If that name sounds familiar, it’s likely because you are a Mythbusters fan, or that you, like me, are an airship fan. So now you have the general idea of where ISEE-3’s operations center, which the team calls “McMoons,” is. In spite of the necessarily low rent building (is there anything that’s really “low rent” in California any more?), the ISEE-3 team is doing well with the commanding of the satellite. Which goes to show that as long as a satellite operations center has some sort of network connectivity, it can be located anywhere in the world.
It’s not the first time McMoons has been used for space activities. The site was also used as a base for NASA and private individuals to help with the Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project (LOIRP). The project aimed to recover and digitize images of the moon from analog data tapes, used by NASA in the 1960’s.
Milestone: The “McMoons” pass the moon
The ISEE-3 team and satellite passed a milestone this last Sunday, as the satellite passed the moon quite closely (about 12000 km/7456 mi). They can now talk to it and the payloads on board and have successfully received payload data. How are they talking to these payloads and satellite? They’re using free and open-source software called GNU Radio. GNU radio is allowing them to identify, and select, through software, the correct radio frequencies needed to communicate with the satellite and its payloads.
The ISEE-3 team would never have been able to operate the satellite’s thrusters at a critical time if they hadn’t any access to that kind of software. Of course, the thruster operations had no effect because the propulsion system is literally out of gas. So instead of having the ISEE-3 satellite stay in an orbit between the Earth and the Sun, the satellite will instead just follow an orbital path identical to the Earth’s.
The team also has teamed up with Google to present a pretty cool site that shows the ISEE-3 in its orbital track, as well as the planets around it. You can go to that particular website from here. It’s actually a little neat. The story of that collaboration about getting the data in fun form you can find right here.
And if ISEE-3 does sound familiar to readers of this blog, it’s because of a post on this site, here.
So, to recap: a 36 year old spacecraft, being controlled using open-source software by a team of crowdfunded folks from a defunct McDonalds near a couple of old blimp hangars. Sounds almost unreal…