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. If I’d done this, I’d be the only thing on my resume – “Controls own spacecraft.” I’d probably try to use it to pick up chicks though I doubt it would work.


  2. wohoo!!

    thats what i call power of convocatory… randall 4 president!!
    i know you probably dont want to… but thats the problem with politics… the people who want to, shouldnt do it


  3. “I’d probably try to use it to pick up chicks though I doubt it would work.”

    I always only found a man attractive when he knew how to solder. So with the right chicks, it will. 😉


  4. Yes, this is amazing, I especially like how they got to use Arecibo for it. Meanwhile, why did the Lorenz comic stop working? You should fix it so we can tell some stories about retrieving the ISEE-3 with that rocket (and possibly with the help of a t-rex).


  5. It was donated to the Smithsonian in the event it were captured and returned to Earth. That was always a pretty big if, but as soon as NASA dismantled the equipment used to control it, it became impossible for them to do. If the Smithsonian wanted to object, that would have been the time. And now without the shuttles, we couldn’t land it anyway.

    If for some reason they do object, the answer is easy: the conditions of its donation cannot be met any time soon, so anything NASA or authorized outsiders do with it in the meantime won’t interfere with it.


  6. More than anything… Thank You for such a great story with incredibly wonderful ending and new beginning. The following is what I shared with others.

    You may – or may not – be familiar with the “xkcd” comic strip… (the comics are nearly always very good)… but this is NOT a joke or just comic material. This just recently happened.
    I would love to be able to talk to dad about this! Too bad he is no longer with us, because he probably would recall quite a bit about this project.

    While you might find this to be very interesting – it is also yet another VERY SAD but extremely true commentary of the decline of the US as a world leader in anything but filth, corruption, inept leadership, and unbelievable tolerance of horrific violations against us and the Law of the Land.
    We Are Certainly Not a world leader in regard to space exploration.

    NASA was a cesspool of filth and corruption, $95 screwdrivers and $100 screws, etc. Precisely why dad turned in his resignation… he couldn’t tolerate it.
    It took $BILLIONS for NASA to even zip up its fly. And all the while everyone was laughing about the incredible gravy train… that was atrocious rape of the taxpayers.
    Hence – no more NASA. HENCE – very shortly – no more nation known as the United States.

    Our government is on the EXACT same highway… and look at the citizenry seizing every tit and unearned scrap with glee as long as the getting is good… and the government and the citizens too blind and tolerant to stop the tidal wave of horror against us, our children, our grandchildren. With the atrocity “BO Stench” at the helm without a shred of ability, leadership, credibility, honor, or proven accomplishment other than vicious greed, hate, and proven malicious intent against our nation and the people. After all, what degree of evil does it take for the BO Maggot and Holder to plan and execute Fast and Furious against our own country – and commit murder??? And now the facts are coming out about Benghazi, IRS, NSA, FEMA, Homeland Security…

    Our pathetic leadership, congress, senate – elected by the people – has destroyed the great nation we once were. Now we totally rely on Russia to take us to the Space Station.
    And due to recent events with the BO Stench and Russia – Russia has stated that they will no longer take us to the space station by 2020.


  7. Dear Britt…wow…. I dont think you realize that this isn’t a youtube video comments page.


  8. Tom, it’s easy to pick up chicks. Baby chickens only weigh a couple of ounces are are rubbish at running away. Most of the ones I’ve known will think you are going to feed them, so they come to you. Just make sure you don’t crush them when you pick them up (kind of scoop them up from underneath), and you should be o.k.!

    Dr. Tod, I’d imagine picking chicks up in space might be harder because they’d be flapping their little wings as they float in zero gravity… but I’m sure Tom would be able to figure something out!


  9. Randall, have you even acknowledged that Pretend You’re Xyzzy added an xkcd card set?


  10. Randall,

    There’s something missing from #1379.

    A bar showing the range of temperatures over which we have been putting fossil CO2 into the atmosphere. Maybe it would be too small to see, and that’s why it’s left out.

    Of course it would then ask the question: What caused the warming and cooling outside of the CO2 emission range…


  11. Something else missing from # 1379 — there isn’t enough water on the planet to allow for a 200m rise in sea levels. Period.

    Let’s do some of that “advanced math” you brag of:

    1. Surface area of oceans = 361,132,000 sq. km. (Wikipedia)
    2. Multiply by 200 meter (0.2 km) to determine amount of water needed to raise sea levels = 72,226,400 cubic km of water
    3. Actual area of glaciers endangered by “global warming” = 522,000 sq km* (

    Now unless those glaciers are extending into low earth orbit (72,226,400/522,000 = almost 140 km tall, on average), there is absolutely NO way that the sea levels can rise 200 meters. Not even within two orders of magnitude.

    But who needs facts when you Have A Narrative, right?

    * – excludes Greenland and Antarctica, which would not be affected by moderate warming of the oceans, nor the North Pole, which is already in the oceans, and would not affect sea levels, even if it were to melt


  12. For Drumwaster :
    It is true that there is a problem in 1379.
    The correct figures would be 200 to 300 feet (not meter). about 70m would come from antartica. It is the main source. Also your article mentions moderate temperature change . This is not the case here with 9°C total difference, which would have a direct impact on greenland (which would deserve its name) and antartica.
    I did the maths just in case for thermal expansion in the oceans but it would actually contribute for less than 1m.


  13. I’m still wondering why 95% of climate models are utterly incorrect when it comes to what reality is reporting instead. (“Oh, the facts must be wrong!”) If the models are wrong, then the science is either wrong is wildly incomplete.

    If they cannot accurately predict the weather for next week within a degree or two, how can we believe that they would get it right for a century from now, to the point where we should completely revamp our way of life to combat it? And why should we be the ones to pay the price for the pollution occurring in the countries doing the worst of the polluting (China, India, Mexico, etc)?

    And why would the temperatures of the Little Ice Age be considered “normal” and not the temps of the Medieval Warm Period?


  14. Wow…. what a way to hijack a thread for your own inane mumblings…

    Anyway….back to the awesomeness (and I use that word in its true meaning)

    I tend to get a feeling of reverse vertigo when I think about space stuff… the idea that a lost spacecraft floating endlessly forever….

    … only to be reactivated!

    Well… it helps me a little…


  15. Wow…. what a way to hijack a thread for your own inane mumblings…

    Steps 1, 2 and 4 in a single sentence. Well done.

    Good thing you don’t have to actually refute the data or math, isn’t it? Well, I will leave the echo chamber to continue the hipsterisms…


  16. 1. Scientific estimates of the sea levels during the Cretaceous put it at between 40m and 250m higher than today – it’s a very broad range, but is backed up by a multitude of different methods. No-one cares what your back of the envelope calculation says “should be” – what matters is what actually happened. If you have evidence to the contrary you should get it published, since it’ll be a major contribution to science.

    2. I can predict (this being winter) that it will be a lot hotter where I am in six months. I can even give an approximate average per day (about 17 degrees). Some outliers over the next couple of months will be quite warm, and may well be as high as some of the outliers (colder days) in the coming summer. But overall, the average will be higher. I know this with a great degree of certainty.

    But you’re saying that my inability to estimate the temperature next week invalidates “summer” theory?


  17. Oh, and the figure you quoted (and as described *in the article itself*) excludes Greenland and Antarctica…

    But who needs reading comprehension when you have A Narrative, right?


  18. You could use the spacecraft to find and catalogue chicks with an apparent magnitude dimmer than 7, even if picking them up might present a challenge.


  19. I can predict (this being winter) that it will be a lot hotter where I am in six months. I can even give an approximate average per day (about 17 degrees).

    Wow, by your standard, it should be roughly 34 degrees warmer by this time next year, right? And approximately 55 degrees warmer by the time the next Presidential election occurs? Or maybe, possibly, conceivably even, there might be natural cycles that tend to even out such fluctuations as the baseline gets longer, into years, decades, et alia? Such as it being warmer roughly a thousand years ago than it is now (MWP, long before the Industrial Revolution) and much colder a few hundred years ago than it is now (Little Ice Age)?

    The inability to predict next week’s weather is a failure of the models, but those self-same models are being used to insist that we erase wholesale technological advances, in order to control the weather. But 95% of those models are flat-out WRONG. But who needs reality when we have computers? And a Narrative?


  20. Dude, given that 95% of scientists agree that anthropogenic climate change is happening, the onus isn’t really on us here to “prove” it to you in a forum.

    Instead, the onus is on you to go and spend some quality time reading up on what those 95% say, why they say it, and what they mean by it. I’m not kidding.

    If, after you’ve genuinely educated yourself, you still believe you were right to begin with, then prove it.

    I’m not being sarcastic, by the way. I genuinely mean this. Go and learn as much as you can.


  21. Dude, given that 95% of scientists agree that anthropogenic climate change is happening,

    Dude, I’ll see your “scientific consensus” (as if science is done by show of hands) and raise you the 95% of computer models that have completely blown it.

    Reality trumps consensus of opinion EVERY SINGLE TIME. Not to mention that there has been no indication of warming for almost two decades now. (Further, that “95%” claim is both misquoted and incorrect. The quote is usually “97%”, but even that number is invalid. So much so that the University who originally made that claim is now suing people to prevent the data from coming out. Only 41 out of the 11,944 published climate studies agreed with the claim made — that man is the primary cause of warming. Trying to suppress source data sure sounds like valid science to me… /sarc)

    “However, inspection of a claim by Cook et al. (Environ Res Lett 8:024024, 2013) of 97.1 % consensus, heavily relied upon by Bedford and Cook, shows just 0.3 % endorsement of the standard definition of consensus: that most warming since 1950 is anthropogenic.”

    Seems you might be the one who needs to do a bit of reading…


  22. 1. I love that you just ignored how your figure for ice extent was completely wrong. Classic.

    2. I’m trying to point out that long term trends are a completely different matter to the exact value of a single data point in a noisy system. The silly soundbite argument that “they can’t predict next week’s weather blah blah blah” is irrelevant.

    It’s like saying “you can’t predict the height of every wave, so there’s no way you can know what sea-level is”. A huge part of statistical analysis is to see what’s happening inside a noisy system, smothing the noise out to get at the underlying facts.

    3. It was warmer than today a thousand years ago… but only in Europe. For the rest of the world, it wasn’t. On average, globally, it wasn’t. And we’re talking about GLOBAL when we talk about global warming. It’s right there in the name.

    YES, we know the system is noisy. Well spotted! Sometimes there will be hot years and cold years and in-between years and sometimes it snows in summer and sometimes I flip 10 heads in a row and sometimes people smoke a pack a day and live to be 100. That’s why a pretty large proportion of the smartest humans on earth spent the last couple of hundred years developing SCIENCE, to help us see past all the vagaries and contradictions and assumptions and biases that comes part and parcel with observing the world through a human brain.

    …and then people like you come along and say that’s all wrong, because you’re ignoring all that effort and achievement, and relying on the same flawed reasoning that science is meant to help us avoid – and you wonder why people get irritated by that.


  23. @ Ben Brockert – May 30, 2014 at 5:23 pm:

    “It’s Keith Cowing, not Cowling. Cowling would be a bit too on the nose for a space guy.”

    I expect Mr Cowing is over the moon about the whole thing 😉


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  25. Wooo Hooo! ALL YOUR SPACE ARE BELONG TO US! (come on guys, you control a space ship, you have to do it!)

    Totally irrelevant fun fact: *most* of the expected sea level rise is due to thermal expansion of water.

    (PS so far, it seems I am failing the Turing test (heavy phallyde? pliallyde?))


  26. But that’s not how it works…

    This is how it goes:

    1 – I am smarter than most people.

    2 – I am pretty stupid.

    Therefore, most people are stupid.


  27. Phew! Don’t you guys realize that we carbon based infestations have just been saved from annihilation?


  28. I enjoyed your chess graphic, but I believe it contains a typo.

    Kira Zworykina presumably continued playing chess into the *21st* century, not the 20th (where she started).


  29. This has absolutely nothing to do with ISEE-3, but I didn’t find any other place to post it, and I needed to get it out :

    in regards to comic 1392,

    Also, kudos to Dennis Wingo and Keith Cowing for the best use of crodwfunding to date.


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