NASA Satellite Found by Amateur Astronomer More Than 12 Years After It Was Lost

The agency lost contact with the satellite 12 years ago. It confirmed last week it was found after an amateur astronomer located its signal
Sibel Nicholson

NASA’s IMAGE satellite, which disappeared in 2005, was discovered by Canadian amateur astronomer Scott Tilley on January 20 while looking for another lost spacecraft, the Zuma spy satellite.

Tilley picked up a signal he did not immediately recognize, but a search revealed that it belonged to NASA’s lost spacecraft Imager for Magnetopause-to-Aurora Global Exploration (IMAGE).

NASA Satellite Found by Amateur Astronomer More Than 12 Years After It Was Lost
Source: NASA

NASA set out to confirm the signal after Tilley informed the agency of this possible discovery. NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland used antennas in five different locations to double-check the signal’s characteristics.

After everything was checked out, NASA confirmed earlier this week that the satellite was really IMAGE. The NASA team was able to read some basic housekeeping data from the spacecraft, suggesting that at least the main control system is operational, NASA said on its website.

“Scientists and engineers at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, will continue to try to analyze the data from the spacecraft to learn more about the state of the spacecraft. This process will take a week or two to complete as it requires attempting to adapt old software and databases of information to more modern systems.” the agency said.

NASA can still read telemetry data from IMAGE

It still remains a mystery why the satellite, which was launched in 2000, disappeared in the first place. IMAGE was designed to image Earth’s magnetosphere and produce the first comprehensive global images of the plasma populations in this region.

The satellite successfully completed and extended its initial two-year mission in 2002 but after five years orbiting Earth and studying our planet’s magnetosphere, it unexpectedly failed to make contact on a routine pass in 2005. NASA presumed that a short circuit had knocked out vital systems.

The agency, which was even hoping an eclipse in 2007 would trigger a full reboot, made several attempts to get the satellite back online. After all these efforts failed the mission was declared officially over.

IMAGE can return to service

NASA confirmed Tuesday that it had been able to read telemetry data from the satellite. It may take a couple weeks of what is called reverse engineering to make systems that can effectively communicate with IMAGE, which is now 18 years old.


But it is expected that it may be possible to switch back on its various science instruments. NASA will wait to make any decisions about IMAGE’s future until it can actually see what is working, the agency has said. 

There is also the possibility the entire satellite could eventually return to service, assuming its instruments are still working. There have been other spacecraft which disappeared but was discovered by astronomers. Amateur astronomers again picked up signals from the experimental satellite in 2013 called LES-1 launched in 1965, nearly a half-century earlier. However, IMAGE's potentially more or less intact status could still make it the most impressive satellite recovery to date.