The IMAGE spacecraft undergoing launch preparations in early 2000. Photo: NASA

On Dec. 18, 2005, NASA unexpectedly lost contact with the IMAGE (Imager for Magnetopause-to-Aurora Global Exploration) satellite, which was the first satellite mission dedicated to imaging the Earth’s magnetosphere.

Now – more than 12 years later – the IMAGE satellite has been rediscovered thanks to the work of an amateur astronomer.

As explained in a blog post, Scott Tilley was scanning the S-band frequency range on Jan. 20, 2018 in an attempt to find the mysterious U.S. government spy satellite, Zuma. Earlier this month, it was suspected that Zuma failed to reach orbit after a launch from Cape Canaveral by Space X’s Falcon 9 rocket. While searching for Zuma, Tilley made a different, unexpected discovery – he stumbled upon a signal that he later identified as coming from the long-lost IMAGE satellite.

NASA followed up Tilley’s potential discovery by attempting to acquire radio frequency signals from the identified object. Experts at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, MD coordinated the use of five separate antennas to pick up any signals. As of Monday, Jan. 29, observations from all five sites were consistent with the radio frequency characteristics expected of IMAGE, according to NASA.

“Specifically, the radio frequency showed a spike at the expected center frequency, as well as side bands where they should be for IMAGE. Oscillation of the signal was also consistent with the last known spin rate for IMAGE,” reads an update from NASA.

The next step to definitively confirm the satellite is IMAGE is for NASA to capture and analyze data from the signal. The primary challenge in doing this is mostly technical, the agency explained. The hardware and operating systems used in the IMAGE Mission Operations Center do not exist anymore, and other systems have been updated several versions beyond what was used at the time, requiring substantial reverse-engineering.

But if successful, NASA could reboot the mission.

The IMAGE satellite was launched into orbit around the Earth on March 25, 2000. It was designed as a two-year mission, but IMAGE continued working and had 5.8 years of successful operations before contact was lost in 2005. According to NASA, IMAGE employed a variety of imaging techniques to “see the invisible.” It produced the first comprehensive global images of the plasma populations in the inner magnetosphere.

“With these images, space scientists were able to observe, in a way never before possible, the large-scale dynamics of the magnetosphere and the interactions among its constituent plasma populations,” wrote NASA.

At the time of communication loss, NASA stated that the most likely explanation of the failure was due to an induced “instant trip” of the Solid Sate Power Controlled (SSPC) supplying power to the transponder. However, it always remained a possibility that the satellite could reset itself.

The IMAGE satellite weighed half a ton and included a suite of six sophisticated instruments. The mission totaled $150 million.