Contact Made With 36-Year-Old 'Retired' Satellite
NASA's International Sun-Earth Explorer (ISEE-3) was undergoing testing and evaluation inside Goddard's dynamic test chamber on August 12, 1978.
'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.
Red tape and a moderate earthquake did not deter a private group from meeting its goal of making contact with a 36-year-old NASA spacecraft that has been slumbering in deep space since 1997.
Now, members are trying to redirect the path of the vintage International Sun-Earth Explorer 3 (ISSE-3) probe before it's too late.
The engineers, programmers and citizen scientists — working under the name ISEE-3 Reboot Project — "spoke" with the probe Thursday (May 29) using the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. This was after a 5.8-magnitude earthquake shook the area earlier this week during testing, temporarily shutting down telescope operations. [NASA's Vintage ISEE-3 Spacecraft in Pictures (Gallery)]
"It took a lot of preparation and perseverance," said co-leader Keith Cowing, who remained behind in Virginia for co-ordination while other co-lead Dennis Wingo worked at Arecibo. Wingo's team has at the Arecibo Observatory for two weeks and is expected to leave Friday (May 30).
The team technically had the capability to command the spacecraft last Friday (May 23), but under a Space Act Agreement with NASA had to have the agency's approval before making the move. That approval finally came through Thursday (May 29).
Cowing acknowledged waiting for approval took longer than he hoped, but said given it's the first time a private group wanted to do something like this, he could appreciate the agency's caution.
Luckily for the group, their preparation worked: first contact went off without a hitch, with the spacecraft responding to a tone exactly as expected. "I'm doing my happy dance," Cowing said.
Firing the Engines
There are numerous technological hurdles to overcome before moving the spacecraft, which is moving towards Earth but in an orbit that is not suitable for repurposing ISEE-3. Redirecting it should "ideally" happen before mid-June before the fuel demands grow very high, Cowing said.
The group plans to put the spacecraft in the Earth-sun Lagrange Point 1 (ES-1), a gravitationally stable spot about 930,000 miles (1.5 million kilometers) from Earth. Getting there won't be as simple as firing the engines, however; more preparation is needed.
First, the group will do more detailed communications with the spacecraft in the coming days to see which of its 13 instruments are working, where it is going and how healthy the spacecraft is overall.
While the exact process is still being worked out, Cowing expects controllers will first do a short test of the engines, and then make a series of engine firings over several days.
If they succeed, then Cowing says it will be the time to decide what to do with ISEE-3, since it's easier to negotiate with a working spacecraft than a perhaps-working one.
Commands will be sent through Arecibo from "McMoon's", a command center Wingo and Cowing originally established in Mountain View, Calif. to restore old images from the NASA Lunar Orbiter spacecraft in the 1960s. McMoons got its name from its location: an abandoned McDonald's at the NASA Ames Research Center.
ISEE-3 is such an old spacecraft that it doesn't have a computer on board. Its thermostat failed years ago, and its engine has experienced excess heating in the past. But with the spacecraft now talking to the Reboot Project, there's the potential it could change its destiny – again.
The spacecraft first launched in 1978 to study cosmic rays and the solar wind, but ended up doing much more until it was put into hibernation in 1997, such as chasing after two comets and examining the sun.
Cowing said the success of the mission will also depend on more funding. The group raised nearly $160,000 on Kickstarter, exceeding its initial goal by $35,000, but every dollar will be needed to rent telescope time and ship needed hardware from all over the world. More campaigns will happen, but he's not sure in what form as it depends on funding from partners.
He noted that NASA will again need to give approval before the Reboot Project fires ISEE-3's engines, but he's hoping the process will go quicker this time.
"It's even more critical this time because the laws of physics are involved in this," Cowing said, referring to the fact that more fuel will be needed as the spacecraft moves further in its orbit. But he's keeping NASA apprised of progress frequently. "They know what we're doing."
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