36-Year-Old 'Retired' NASA Spacecraft to be Jump-Started
Artist rendition of the International Sun-Earth Explorer-3 (ISEE-3), which became the Interplanetary Cometary Explorer.
'Selfies' are all the rage these days. Every smartphone is attached with a camera and to the Internet, so it was inevitable that our vain species would take full advantage of the technology, snapping endless photos of cats and, of course, ourselves. Selfies -- or 'self portraits' to the uninitiated -- have become such a cultural phenomenon that Oxford University Press has declared 'Selfies' their word of the year. This may sound asinine, but Merriam-Webster Dictionary balanced it outand declared 'Science' their word of 2013
. In the spirit of fairness, I've combined the two words of the year and applied them to robots. Yes, robots. Robots that explore space, doing science. And just in case you didn't know, robots can be pretty vain too, taking snapshots of their junk for the whole Internet to see. To narrow the field down a bit, I've only selected robots that have photographed parts of their own structure, or attached components. I've also allowed the occasional robotic camera that was deployed for the sole purpose of taking a selfie
(nice effort, IKAROS).
The first robot that likely comes to mind is the undisputed
King of Selfies
, NASA's Mars Science Laboratory rover Curiosity. The car-sized rover impressed the world with its selfie prowess when mission scientists released a stunning high-resolution mosaic of the rover in November 2012, only a couple of months after it landed inside Gale Crater. Curiosity achieved the feat by holding its Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) at (robotic) arm's length, taking a truly authentic "selfie." The world applauded this effort.PHOTOS: Mars Through Curiosity's Powerful MAHLI Camera
But Curiosity certainly wasn't the first robot on Mars to snap its own picture, and it won't be the last. Although the Viking landers that touched down on the Red Planet in 1976 didn't have robotic arm-mounted cameras capable of taking a "true" selfie, they did their best.This view
from Viking 2 was snapped on Nov. 2, 1976, showing a part of the lander's deck, the American flag, the bottom of the robot's high-gain antenna and a boulder-littered Utopia Planitia, the largest identified impact crater on Mars.
PHOTOS: Alien Robots That Left Their Mark on Mars
Staying on Mars, some amazing panoramic shots and top-down self portraits have been attained by NASA's epic twin Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity. As you've probably guessed, commanding a robot on another planet to take self portraits isn't for fun (even though the outcome
a lot of fun), it actually serves a purpose. In the case of Viking and Curiosity, engineers on Earth can study the photos to see the condition of instruments on the robots' 'decks.'As shown here
, for solar powered rover Spirit, using its mast-mounted panoramic camera was very useful for capturing amazing 360 degree views of the surrounding terrain. It was also great for keeping track of the build-up of Martian dust on its panels. In this photo taken in 2005, Spirit's solar array shines in the sun, having collected only a very thin layer of dust two years after it landed.NEWS: 9 Years Later: Remembering Mars Rover Spirit
Spirit's twin rover Opportunity soldiers on to this day, exploring the Martian surface after nearly a decade since landing. Jan. 25, 2014, is its 10 year Mars "birthday" (mark your calendars!). Currently exploring the edge of Endeavour Crater, helping to piece together clues of Mars' evolution (complementing the science being done by Curiosity), Opportunity is no stranger to taking its own photo. As Spirit and Opportunity were designed to the same specifications, Opportunity can also take 360 degree views and monitor dust build-up on its solar panels.Seen here
in 2011, its once shiny solar array is blanketed with a camouflaging coat of dust.NEWS: Opportunity Finds More Hints of Mars Habitability
No, robotic Mars explorers aren't especially fond of sefies, it's just that NASA has sent a lot of Mars surface missions in the past few years. Seen here in 2008, NASA's Mars arctic lander Phoenix took its own photo using a mast-mounted panoramic camera in a similar style to Spirit and Opportunity. It seems that the first rule of robotic selfies is: If it ain't broke, don't fix it.PHOTOS: Phoenix Mars Lander's First Images
Now for something a little different. In 2007, the European comet-chasing spacecraft Rosetta made close approach with Mars, coming within 1,000 miles of the surface, using the planet for a fuel-saving gravity assist. The boost in speed is allowing Rosetta to catch up with comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko -- an encounter that is planned for 2014. But during the flyby, the spacecraft managed to snap this iconic photo of Mars from space. What makesthis view
so special is that Rosetta also caught its own solar array in the shot.ANALYSIS: Advice to Rosetta: Maybe She's Just Not That Into You
Leaving Mars, we now head to Venus where, in 1982, the Soviet Venera 13 lander managed to survive the hellish conditions and transmit data for two hours. In that time it also returned some color photos of the Venusian surface. In those photos, the hardy lander was able to capture some of its jagged landing gear at the bottom of the shot. It may not be perfect, but while sitting in a pressure-cooker with a limited amount of time to return valuable data, it's a superb effort.ANALYSIS: When the Veneras Challenged Venus' Hellish Atmosphere
In a video released by the Chinese Space Agency of the Chang'e 2 lunar orbiter in 2010, the view shortly after launch was captured by a camera overseeing the deployment of the mission's solar panels.Courtesy of the Planetary Society's Emily Lakdawalla
, the video in its entiretycan be watched on Youtube
Whoa! What's that huge UFO that photobombs the shot?
Oh, that's Earth.ANALYSIS: Chinese Probe Buzzes Asteroid Toutatis
The Japanese Hayabusa asteroid sample return mission got a little creative with this selfie effort. In 2005, as it approached near-Earth asteroid Itokawa, with the sun at its back the mission snapped its shadow falling on the sunlit asteroid surface.
for leading me to Hayabusa!
VIDEO: NASA Aircraft Videos Hayabusa Re-Entry
In 2010, the Japanese space agency JAXA launched a pioneering mission. Using only the sun's energy for propulsion, the Interplanetary Kite-craft Accelerated by Radiation Of the Sun, or IKAROS, probe set sail through interplanetary space for a January 2011 rendezvous with the planet Venus. After the solar sail was launched, two miniature wireless cameras were ejected by IKAROS as it deployed in Earth orbit,returning this admirable "hands free" self portrait
. Then, as IKAROS reached its destination eight months later, it took a snapshot of a crescent Venus (inset). (Thank youEmily Lakdawalla
for reminding me about these stunning IKAROS photos!)
Special thanks to all my Twitter buddies who engaged in Wednesday evening's conversation about robot selfies!
Can you think of more space mission "selfies"? Feel free to share them in the comments below.
A decades-old spacecraft appears to be in great health despite being abandoned in the solar system for the better part of two decades, the private team working to revive the NASA probe says.
All instruments are on and NASA's International Sun/Earth Explorer 3spacecraft, or ISEE-3 for short, is responding to hails from its new command team, which hopes to send the probe on new adventures in deep space.
The team, called the ISEE-3 Reboot Project, is working out of a former McDonald's near NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California. So far, the team has been gathering information on where the spacecraft is moving, how fast it is spinning and how much power it has. [NASA's ISEE-3 Spacecraft in Photos]
ISEE-3 has ample power (a surplus of 28 watts) and its instruments are all turned on, although how well they are functioning will require further investigation, said team co-leader Keith Cowing.
"We need to understand [the spacecraft] before we fire the engines for the main thrust," he told Space.com. That will likely come on June 17, and it is intended to eventually put ISEE-3 in a stable spot where it can reliably communicate with Earth.
The team made contact with the spacecraft in late May under a Space Act Agreement with NASA. It's the first time any private entity has taken over a spacecraft, leading to careful discussions on both ends about what is allowed. The current communications agreement runs through June 25, but Cowing said it's an incremental date expected to be extended.
The project's ultimate goal is to make the spacecraft available for more science, although what ISEE-3 will do is still not known. Since being launched in 1978, the spacecraft has been a comet chaser, a solar probe and more. NASA ceased communications with it in 1997.
The spacecraft first, however, needs to be moved. Cowing projects the first firings will need to change ISEE's speed by about 6 meters (20 feet) a second. He said the best "guesstimate" of fuel available shows plenty of margin: there's enough to alter the spacecraft's speed by 150 meters (492 feet) a second.
NASA's International Sun-Earth Explorer (ISEE-3) was undergoing testing and evaluation inside Goddard's dynamic test chamber when this photo was taken. Working inside a dynamic test chamber, Goddard engineers wear protective "clean room" clothing to preveNASA
Team members want to eventually place ISEE-3 in the Earth-sun Lagrange Point 1 (ES-1), a gravitationally stable spot about 930,000 miles (1.5 million kilometers) from Earth. Cowing said it might be August or September before that happens, but the timeline isn't firmed up yet.
If all goes to plan, the spacecraft will also head behind the far side of the moon for about 25 minutes, which is somewhat risky given there's no working battery. Cowing pointed out, however, that the spacecraft has done it before, and said they will likely leave the instruments on to give it a bit of extra heat as it passes behind.
Keeping track of the spacecraft will be somewhat more difficult as it approaches Earth, because its position changes more rapidly from our viewpoint. Right now the team is remotely using the massive fixed-dish Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico.
Within a week, they hope to have supplemental communications at Morehead State University, although the first engine firing at least will likely take place with Arecibo.
Meanwhile, at least a couple of amateurs have been able to track ISEE-3's radio communications using small dishes. As the spacecraft gets closer to Earth, Cowing said he is curious if university optical telescopes will be able to pick out the small craft. (It's about 15 million to 20 million miles away, and moving closer at about a quarter-million miles a day, he said.)
Cowing said that he is amazed at how healthy the spacecraft is. "It's almost like people going to the Antarctic, and discovering something somebody left behind half a century ago, frozen, still works."
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