The 2014 earth return of the ISEE-3/ICE spacecraft

David W. Dunham, Robert W. Farquhar, Michel Loucks, Craig E. Roberts, Dennis Wingo, Keith L. Cowing, Leonard N. Garcia, Tim Craychee, Craig Nickel, Anthony Ford, Marco Colleluori, David C. Folta, Jon D. Giorgini, Edward Nace, John E. Spohr, William Dove, Nathan Mogk, Roberto Furfaro, Warren L. Martin

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


In 1978, the 3rd International Sun-Earth Explorer (ISEE-3) became the first libration-point mission, about the Sun-Earth L1 point. Four years later, a complex series of lunar swingbys and small propulsive maneuvers ejected ISEE-3 from the Earth-Moon system, to fly by a comet (Giacobini-Zinner) for the first time in 1985, as the rechristened International Cometary Explorer (ICE). In its heliocentric orbit, ISEE-3/ICE slowly drifted around the Sun to return to the Earth's vicinity in 2014. Maneuvers in 1986 targeted a 2014 August 10th lunar swingby to recapture ISEE-3 into Earth orbit. In 1999, ISEE-3/ICE passed behind the Sun; after that, tracking of the spacecraft ceased and its control center at Goddard was shut down. In 2013, meetings were held to assess the viability of "reawakening" ISEE-3. The goal was to target the 2014 lunar swingby, to recapture the spacecraft back into a halo-like Sun-Earth L1 orbit. However, special hardware for communicating with the spacecraft via NASA's Deep Space Network stations was discarded after 1999, and NASA had no funds to reconstruct the lost equipment. After ISEE-3's carrier signal was detected on March 1st with the 20 m antenna at Bochum, Germany, Skycorp, Inc. decided to initiate the ISEE-3 Reboot Project, to use software-defined radio with a less costly S-band transmitter that was purchased with a successful RocketHub crowdsourcing effort. NASA granted Skycorp permission to command the spacecraft. Commanding was successfully accomplished using the 300 m radio telescope at Arecibo. New capture trajectories were computed, including trajectories that would target the August lunar swingby and use a second ΔV (velocity change) that could target later lunar swingbys that would allow capture into almost any desired final orbit, including orbits about either the Sun-Earth L1 or L2 points, a lunar distant retrograde orbit, or targeting a flyby of the Earth-approaching active Comet Wirtanen in 2018. A tiny spinup maneuver was performed on July 2nd, the first since 1987. A 7 m/s ΔV maneuver was attempted on July 8th, to target the August lunar swingby. But the maneuver failed; telemetry showed that only about 0.15 m/s of ΔV was accomplished, then the thrust quickly decayed. The telemetry indicated that the nitrogen pressurant was gone so hydrazine could not be forced to the thrusters. The experience showed how a spacecraft can survive 30 years of space weather. The spacecraft flew 18 thousand km from the Moon, resulting in a heliocentric orbit that will return near the Earth in 2029.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)29-42
Number of pages14
JournalActa Astronautica
StatePublished - 2015


  • Comet
  • Gravity assist
  • Libration-point orbit
  • Maneuver
  • Solar wind
  • Spinning spacecraft

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Aerospace Engineering


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