Lost NASA satellite wakes up after being declared ‘dead’ 13 years ago

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NASA has had a pretty great string of luck when it comes to spacecraft reliability as of late. The Cassini probe around Saturn proved to be so reliable that its mission was extended multiple times, and the Juno probe hanging out around Jupiter is already being considered for a mission extension thanks to its steady performance. Now, something completely unexpected has given NASA’s hardware profile another boost, as a satellite thought to have been dead for well over a decade has suddenly woken back up.

The IMAGE satellite (which stands for Imager for Magnetopause-to-Aurora Global Exploration) was initially launched way back in early 2000. The spacecraft was designed to observe the plasma levels around Earth. It performed well for its first two years in service and was granted a two-year extension for continued research but then went dark in late 2005. One final try to make contact with the satellite in 2007 failed and NASA declared the satellite dead. That is, until an amateur astronomer stumbled upon a signal from the satellite just days ago indicating it was very much alive.

“The identity of the satellite re-discovered on Jan. 20, 2018, has been confirmed as NASA’s IMAGE satellite,” NASA says. “On the afternoon of Jan. 30, the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab in Laurel, Maryland, successfully collected telemetry data from the satellite. The signal showed that the space craft ID was 166 —  the ID for IMAGE. 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.” – READ MORE

Mars is very much en vogue right now. NASA is focused on exploring Mars, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk wants to colonize Mars, and astronomers all around the world want to learn more about Earth’s nearest neighbor. The discovery earlier this month that the planet is hiding massive water ice reserves just beneath its surface could have far-reaching ramifications, possibly giving future humans on Mars easy access to water supplies. Of course, humans would need more than water to survive on Mars.

NASA on Thursday unveiled a device called Kilopower, a compact nuclear reactor capable of reliably generating power. In a guest post on Space.com, the Department of Energy’s Kilopower project lead Patrick McClure and Los Alamos National Laboratory’s chief reactor designer David Poston explained how the solution works.

“The brilliance of Kilopower is its simplicity: With few moving parts, it uses heat-pipe technology, invented at Los Alamos way back in 1963, to power a Stirling engine,” the two wrote. “Here’s how it works: The sealed tube in the heat pipe circulates a fluid around the reactor, picking up the heat and carrying it to the Stirling engine. There, the heat energy pressurizes gas to drive a piston coupled to a motor that generates electricity. Using the two devices in tandem creates a simple, reliable electric power supply that can be adapted for space applications, including human exploration and space science missions to outer planetary bodies like the moons of Jupiter and Saturn.”

The researchers have created different versions of the portable Kilopower reactor that generate different amounts of power. They range from 1 kilowatt, which they say is only enough to power a household toaster, to 10 kilowatts in size. According to McClure and Poston, about 40 kW would be needed to effectively run a habitat on Mars and generate fuel. – READ MORE

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