Scott Tilley came across signals he wasn’t expecting when he was hunting the sky for a secret military satellite.
Last weekend, the amateur astronomer from Roberts Creek, B.C., was scanning the estimated orbit of the mysterious SpaceX Zuma probe, which launched in early January and was reportedly lost on its way to space.
But the signals Tilley heard that night seemed to be transmitting data back to Earth — and upon further investigation he determined there was a good chance it was a long-missing NASA satellite called IMAGE.
“There’s so much that’s up there, it’s hard to see the forest for the trees, it’s like looking for a needle in a haystack, so it’s pretty satisfying when you do find them and you’re able to keep tabs on them,” Tilley told On The Coast guest host Laura Lynch.
The IMAGE craft was launched in 2000 with the purpose of capturing the aurora borealis in the far north and predicting space weather in real time, but after about five years of successful orbiting the power to its communication systems shut off.
After it ran out of power, NASA had hoped IMAGE would reboot and regain communications, which it has, just a lot later than they were expecting.
“When you put something in space you can’t go knock on its door and look it in the eyeball, you’ve got to use a radio to communicate with it and control it… If you can’t talk to it, you can’t tell it to reset its switch,” Tilley said.
“It dawned on me that this quarter-of-a-million-dollar space asset could be recovered and reused,” he added.
Several of NASA’s ground stations have confirmed the signal that Tilley found and are fairly certain that it is the IMAGE craft.
“They’re attempting to find the old software and instruction manual from the 1990s that’s probably in the bottom of somebody’s desk drawer somewhere to reboot the thing and figure out how to talk to it,” Tilley said.
Richard Burley, former project manager with the original mission, said they can’t 100-per-cent confirm that the craft Tilley found is IMAGE, but the prospect is exciting because teams can get very attached to these projects after all the hours spent getting it off the ground.
“For IMAGE, I was on the initial proposal team, so I was there when it was a concept… You definitely get attached to the people and the missions and the team, and the feeling that you’re doing something productive for mankind,” Burley said.
It’s going to be a lot of work to get IMAGE back up and running, but Burley said that if the spacecraft is still healthy the data they could collect on space weather patterns could be extremely useful.
Although Tilley might not get much more than a nod from NASA for his work, he’s keeping his eyes on the sky on the hunt for more anomalies — and maybe Zuma will show up after all.
“As somebody who’s loved space since being a kid, I’m happy to have contributed something positive,” he said.