Back in early March, I posted comic #1337, Hack, about a wayward spacecraft. ISEE-3/ICE was returning to fly past Earth after many decades of wandering through space. It was still operational, and could potentially be sent on a new mission, but NASA no longer had the equipment to talk to it—and announced that reconstructing the equipment would be too difficult and expensive.

ISEE-3 is just a machine, but it’s a machine we sent on an incredible journey; to have it return home to find our door closed seemed sad to me. In my comic, I imagined a group of internet space enthusiasts banding together to find a way to take control of the probe—although I figured this was just a hopeful fantasy.

I wasn’t the only one who liked the idea of “rescuing” ISEE-3. In April, Dennis Wingo and Keith Cowing put up a crowdfunding project on RocketHub to try to learn how the lost communications systems worked, reconstruct working versions of them, obtain use of a powerful enough antenna, and commandeer the spacecraft. It seemed like an awfully long shot, but I contributed anyway.

Well, yesterday, Cowing and his team announced, from the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico, that they are now in command of the ISEE-3 spacecraft.

Congratulations to the team, and good luck with your new spaceship! Watch out for hackers.

79 replies on “ISEE-3”

  1. Even though this has nothing to do with the blog post, at the Google Picnic this year they had the human hamster balls. They gave it some weird name, but everyone knew what they really were.


  2. This is a bit off topic, but did you know that what-if #104; Global Snow, marked the 2 year mark of xkcd: what if!


  3. HI, thanks. I’m an italian guy with with a strange curiosity but i don’t know how to solve it (it’s not sexual matter). If you could compress at his physics limit the entire atmosphere, how much room would it take? Thank for the reply


  4. Thanks for bringing this one to my attention, it’s always nice to keep a casting eye on this type of project. I was sad to read on the ISEE-3 website that the ship had run out of Nitrogen Gas and, that they were unable to change it’s course. Hey ho, there’s always another day (maybe).


  5. Since no one else has replied to Claudio and I’m working reference at the library today, I figured I’d give this one a try:

    I’m not sure what you mean by “at his physics limit,” but if you compress the atmosphere (or anything else) as much as it can possibly be compressed within our universe, you wind up with a black hole. Wikipedia tells me our atmosphere has a mass a little over 5 x 10^18 kg, which is a few thousand times the total mass of all life on earth combined, but less than a ten thousandth of the mass of our moon. This means it would make a very, very tiny black hole.

    A black hole, as you may have heard, is so dense that anything that gets too close — even light — will be trapped by its gravitational pull and unable to escape. The distance at which “close” becomes “too close” for light itself is called the event horizon. So the smallest meaningful size we can assign to your super-compressed atmosphere is defined by the event horizon of a ~5 x 10^18 kg black hole.

    Going by wikipedia again, the event horizon would be a sphere of your black hole’s Schwarzschild radius, which is around 1.5 x 10^−27 meters per kilogram. Multiplying this out gives us a radius of roughly 7.5 nanometers — about the thickness of a cell membrane. This is significantly shorter than the wavelength of visible light, so the “black hole” would not be visible even with the most powerful visible-light microscope that is possible even in theory. And if I’m doing the calculations correctly, it would take something in the neighborhood of 15 years for the black hole to disappear entirely due to Hawking radiation.

    What would happen to the earth (or your microscope) in the meantime is an entirely different question.


  6. Nice response, Oren!
    Now I’m left considering all the possible implications of WHERE said itty-bitty black hole might end up…


  7. Commendable! That reminds me of when NASA wanted to plan the space shuttles they discovered they could not find the most pertinent drafts and manuals for their Saturn rockets that carried Armstrong et al. to the moon. Everywhere we have a lack of preservation of former knowledge and procedures. I am quite sure that even if the old equipment used e.g. vacuum valves etc. almost all analog circuits and thus the whole communication equipment could have been emulated in weeks had everything been in proper archives.


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