Using precise measurements, IMAGE visualized, among other things, what happens when particles from the sun come crashing into the magnetosphere and produce dancing auroras in the night sky. It created a complete picture, for the first time, of Earth’s invisible force field.
And it did a good job of it, too, until suddenly, in December 2005, IMAGE stopped talking to Earth. NASA tried and tried to regain contact but heard nothing. The magnetosphere’s best photographer was finished.
Within hours, the email that stunned Burley reached many of the members of the old team. Burley was charged with leading the effort to confirm whether this signal was, indeed, coming from IMAGE. A few hours in, he dashed off a quick note to the growing email chain. “Status of activities taken today,” Burley wrote. “I’ve managed to clean all the coffee off of my laptop that I spit on it when I saw Jim Burch’s email this morning.”
Burley and others from the original IMAGE team rummaged for the documents that guided the spacecraft’s operations years ago. The software they’d used back then now seemed hopelessly out of date, and they scrambled to adapt it to modern versions. “One of my colleagues said he’s dusting off some old computers and seeing if he has the passwords to turn them on,” said Stephen Fuselier, who worked as a coinvestigator on IMAGE’s imaging instruments. Fuselier, a plasma physicist, is now the executive director of the Southwest Research Institute in Texas. At the same time, other astronomers, hearing about IMAGE’s reawakening, volunteered to point radio telescopes toward the direction of the pings Tilley had recorded from his home in Canada.
They had confirmation within days. Last Tuesday, the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab in Maryland detected signals at the same kind of frequency IMAGE used to broadcast. When they dissected the incoming data, they managed to uncover the unique identification number embedded within, like the license plate of a car. The ID was a match. IMAGE was back.
By Friday, Burley and the team had analyzed enough data to determine that IMAGE was up and running again. “So far, IMAGE appears to be operating as designed,” Burley said.
Right now, the team is just listening. Soon, they will try sending commands.
The reappearance of IMAGE has been exhilarating for its former stewards. In the years since its presumed demise, mission members have moved on to different roles, other departments, new missions. The work behind IMAGE lurked at the edges of their memory, remembered fondly but infrequently. Spann said receiving the first batch of data, or achieving “first light,” felt, in a way, like the birth of a child. “You work so hard for so many years, laboring to build this instrument, making sure it’s designed correctly, that it operates well, that it will be safe in the space environment,” he said. “So when you first get data from it ... you’re now going to enjoy the life of this new instrument with all the data that you dreamed of and hoped that it would provide.”