The Satellite and the Vacant McDonald's

Jonathan Strickland

Artist's depiction of ISEE-3. | Image courtesy of NASA
Artist's depiction of ISEE-3. | Image courtesy of NASA

Mountain View, California is a tech-heavy place. That's the location of the Googleplex, Google's high-tech campus. It's also the location of a group of engineers controlling a satellite from an old, abandoned McDonald's restaurant. No, really!

What's better is that they're not even aiming a giant space laser at, I don't know, London or something. These guys are actually doing science! They've taken possession of a defunct NASA satellite and repurposed it for civilian scientific study.

The story begins back on August 12, 1978. That's when NASA launched the International Sun/Earth Explorer 3, aka the ISEE-3 satellite. The satellite entered orbit at Lagrange Point L1, meaning it orbits the sun and maintains its position from the perspective of those of us on Earth.

It later became known as the International Cometary Explorer or ICE after it took a quick dip into the tail of comet Giacobini-Zinner. But by 1997, NASA decided to break up with the satellite. I imagine there was some sort of "It's not you, it's us" type of message sent along.

NASA checked in a couple of times with ISEE-3 but the satellite remained out of commission. Its batteries died a long time ago, but the satellite also has solar panels and can operate within 98-percent of its original parameters using solar power. In other words, it can still do science if someone were willing to put in the work to communicate with it.

There's actually a team of someones, led by Keith Cowing, a former NASA employee. Cowing and his team came up with an interesting proposition -- raise the money to build makeshift communications gear, make contact with the ISEE-3 satellite and use it to collect data that anyone with a computer can access. The idea became a crowdfunding success and soon the team got to work building the equipment they'd need to make contact with this outdated technology.

Over at Betabeat, there's a fantastic rundown of the process the team went through, including their limited contact with NASA (an organization that seems to be looking on with bemused curiosity). The team works out of a vacant McDonald's and have opened the virtual doors to all the data the satellite gathers. Citizen science can move ahead with no delay (typically, NASA holds back on data gathered during missions for a number of months before releasing it to the public).

I absolutely love this story. It has a bit of everything. There's the crowdfunding success that shows how people are excited about science. There's the openness of sharing data -- you never know who will find something interesting in all that information. And there's the fact that the team was able to repurpose technology that otherwise would have remained dormant. It's fantastic. Head over to Betabeat to read up on the whole adventure!