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Morehead State’s sophisticated Space Sciences department shoots to control long-sleeping satellite

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If all goes well MSU could assume command of the ICE satellite by July.

If all goes well, Morehead State could assume command of the ICE satellite by July.

This is the first in a series of stories about aerospace efforts at Morehead State University and in the state of Kentucky.

In just a few weeks, Morehead State University has the chance to make aerospace history. That’s because between now and the end of July a team at the eastern Kentucky school’s Space Sciences department will have the opportunity to establish full control over a long-ignored satellite, which NASA essentially left for dead in the late 1990s.

The satellite is best known as the International Cometary Explorer, or ICE, though at other times it’s been called the ISEE-3. NASA launched the satellite in 1978, and its various jobs included orbiting the sun to check solar weather patterns. It also was bounced from its orbit to become the first satellite to reach Halley’s Comet in 1986.

ICE’s mission, and funding, was terminated in 1997, though the satellite still worked.

Now the Morehead State University (MSU) team is using its surprisingly sophisticated armada of solar dishes and interstellar communications equipment to get the satellite back to full functionality, fire its thrusters, and gently nudge it back toward its orbit around the sun, where they hope it will resume its original mission.

The team at MSU is led by Dr. Benjamin Malphrus, director of the school’s Department of Earth and Space Sciences. His partner in this endeavor is staff electrical engineer Jeffrey Kruth. The pair will be aided by the powerful aerospace team Malphrus has assembled at MSU, including two transplants from Stanford University: Dr. Robert Twiggs, a certified rock-star in the exploding world of cube-satellites, i.e. mini units small enough to do a whole range of amazing things (more about them in a later article); and Dr. Kevin Brown, a young scientist who has designed one of the cube-sats MSU sent into space.

Bouncing off satellites: Dr. Benjamin Malphrus

Dr. Benjamin Malphrus

Morehead State is located 140 miles east of Louisville in tiny Rowan County, where unemployment hovers at 8 percent, and the local downtown seems to lack the town part. MSU itself is so unassuming it’s easy to drive right by it, as I did. Several times. Yet, they’re about to take a shot at space history.

I recently visited Morehead to speak with Malphrus and Kruth about why it was so important for them to reactivate ICE, when NASA had long since stopped caring.

The two make quite a pair. Malphrus lights up as he discusses all things related to space and MSU, and he’s no stranger to a prank, like handing me a mini-sat, then telling me it only cost about $1 million. (He lied — it was only worth $330,000.)

Kruth is a bearish intellectual and raconteur, with aviator glasses and an air of mystery. He hints at having helped make the kind of surveillance satellites used by “all those agencies you see on late nights on your TV,” like the CIA and NSA.

Satellite shop: Jeff Kruth

Satellite shop: Jeff Kruth

I interviewed them amidst a sea of hugely expensive technical equipment owned by Kruth, who had it shipped from Baltimore to MSU in 2005. It took 15 tractor trailers and cost $60,000, which he paid out of pocket.

My first question for them: What’s the point in reactivating this satellite?

“The point?” Kruth said. “We were told 12 of its original 13 functions are still working. People are always interested in monitoring the sun.” Especially as swings in solar weather can have profound impacts on climate.

Also, he said, if they can get it back to full activation they would be making a functional data-collecting satellite for a fraction of the cost of a new one; in effect recycling a satellite.

Plus, these folks are simply science fans, motivated by affection for the satellite’s history, and they think it deserves a better fate than to become space junk.

“It was the first to do many things,” says Malphrus, pointing to the fact that not only did it orbit the sun, but it tracked multiple comets, in addition to Halley’s. Being a comet-tracker wasn’t part of its original mission, and the sheer amount of mathematical figuring that went into this effort was staggering.

Then Kruth hit upon what are perhaps the most salient reasons: the emotional ones.

“This spacecraft is a reflection of the greatness that America was in the heyday of NASA and in the legacy of our science effort,” he says. Think about it: A decades old satellite is still going, well past its projected expiration date, in the harshest possible environment. “That’s really something. It’s a hallmark of the type of engineering and work we had done. And it serves as something we should aspire to.”

Two-way communications with ICE were established in late May, and now MSU is primed to take the next step.

I was taken to mission command, which thrilled the “Star Trek” loving-nerd inside me. I was also secretly glad to see, amidst the banks of sophisticated computers and large-panel monitors, that their free AVG anti-spyware software needed an update, as does mine.

MSU Mission Control

MSU Mission Control

Mission control featured a few long computer-laden desks, racks of machines, and a large circular bank of windows that looked upon a hillside. At the top of the hill, MSU’s 21-meter satellite dish loomed. It’s one of the 100 largest in the world, Malphrus says, and can be commanded and rotated from inside mission control.

To even get to attempt taking command of ICE took a small miracle. A rogue NASA contractor named Dennis Wingo got the ball rolling a year ago when he essentially willed this project to life. He wanted to see if the probe could work again, despite NASA’s indifference; NASA told him to do his best.

Wingo created a crowd-funding campaign on, fittingly, Rockethub.com, with a goal of $125,000. The campaign ended up raising $159,600 from 2,238 individual donors and space nuts, including one person who gave $5,000. (Their present: a private tour of the MSU 21-meter dish, which I saw for free, ha-ha.)

Now NASA grew more excited, though it still had no money to give. What it did give, though, was something called a “Space Act Agreement,” meaning it blessed the project and would give technical and engineering help.

It turns out this project could use all the help it could get. You might think something as important and sophisticated as a satellite would have computer files backed up, but you’d be wrong. All the files, I was told, were on paper, and most of those were thrown out long ago.

But there is some serendipity at work, too. Robert Farquhar, the scientist who originally made the solar-satellite into a comet chaser, is still alive, and creating new work and calculations for the unit.

Today the MSU team is a month away from beginning its attempt to command ICE. They’re configuring equipment, and checking calculations. Their job is to transmit the commands, some of which will be made by collaborators far away.

If MSU’s efforts to re-establish full command don’t work they’ll get another shot, in 2029, maybe. All concerned understand that all this may amount to nothing, which doesn’t diminish their passion for this project one particle. “If you want a guarantee,” says Kruth, “get a toaster.”

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