By David Meyer
January 31, 2018

At the end of 2005, NASA lost one of its satellites. Now it has found it again, thanks to an amateur astronomer—but it needs to remember how to read its data.

The Imager for Magnetopause-to-Aurora Global Exploration (IMAGE) satellite was launched in early 2000 as part of a mission to observe the Earth’s magnetosphere, and how it’s affected by solar wind. The whole project cost around $132 million, and the mission was extended in 2002. Then IMAGE vanished three years later.

An amateur astronomer spotted it a couple weeks ago, prompting NASA to take another look. On Monday, the space agency said the radio signals coming from the object seemed about right, but the signal needed analysis to confirm its origin.

And on Tuesday, NASA said the data encoded in the signal indicated this was indeed IMAGE. What’s more, it’s still at least partially functional.

“The NASA team has been able to read some basic housekeeping data from the spacecraft, suggesting that at least the main control system is operational,” the agency said.

To learn more about the state of the spacecraft, NASA engineers need to be able to figure out more of what the data says. The issue there is that a lot of time has passed since the IMAGE mission was in action, and the kind of hardware and operating systems being used at the time no longer exist.

“Other systems have been updated several versions beyond what they were at the time, requiring significant reverse-engineering,” NASA said.

This effort will take a couple weeks, if it’s possible at all. Only after it can read the data will NASA be able to determine the state of IMAGE’s scientific instruments. And only then will it be able to figure out what to do with it.

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