NASA Satellite Was Lost By Amateur Astronomer Finds In Space

Amateur astronomer Scott Tilley had been at his home office on a recent evening, with his radio equipment to scan distance at a needle-in-a-haystack look for a spy satellite operated by the US Air Force.

Tilley, 47, a Canadian, finds himself on assignments like this nightly.

Scott Tilley, pictured near his home in Canada, found a NASA satellite that had been lost for more than a decade.
Scott Tilley, pictured close to his home in Canada, found a NASA satellite that had been missing for at least a decade.   Photo: Courtesy of Scott Tilley

Because he had been about eight, he’s been a devoted but earthbound area explorer, searching for concealed satellites at the sky for hours on end.

As he scanned the heavens that night a couple of weeks past, he did not discover what he was searching for, but he stumbled upon something maybe even better: a different satellite, even some weather craft NASA dropped more than a decade past.

The IMAGE satellite undergoes launch preparations in early 2000.
The IMAGE satellite undergoes launch trainings in early 2000.     Photo: Courtesy of NASA

NASA had hunted for the spacecraft, worth roughly $US150 million, for 2 years before consuming.

For an amateur astronomer, it had been the stuff of fantasies.

“By far, it’s the most important thing I’ve discovered,” said Tilley, an electric engineer. “It’s a fairly cool thing in my world.”

Tilley, who lives in British Columbia, had found the weather-tracking spacecraft IMAGE, which NASA launched in 2000 and dropped contact with five years after.

At dinner, he told his wife about his discovery. She told him to tell NASA.

“I said, ‘Well, just how do I do that?’ ” Tilley explained.

“She said, ‘If you can find a satellite in space, certainly you can discover who built the item.’ “

So Tilley posted on Twitter what he’d found. Then he got some names of scientists who had worked on the project and sent some mails.

“Once I awakened, my inbox was filled with emails from those who worked at the early 2000s,” Tilley said.

NASA supported his discovery during identification data collected by scientists at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland.

Now the agency is trying to learn more about the status of IMAGE and determine if it can once more gather the data the craft was initially sent up to gather.

“We are all very, very excited we might find back the satellite,” said Patricia Reiff, that had been co-investigator for the IMAGE satellite and also is a professor of physics and astronomy at Rice University. She had worked on the project since its inception in 1989.

NASA had stopped searching for IMAGE in 2007 because of funds, she said, and she did not expect it ever to be found again.

The issue today is, since IMAGE’s technologies is indeed outdated, NASA needs to be innovative at finding ways to convey with its ageing software.

The mission of IMAGE was supposed to collect space weather data that would affect technology like GPS devices and radio waves. The satellite had been doing its job efficiently until 2005 as it went d**d.

Scientists say they think there was a glitch on its battery that caused it to close down. It may have countered with solar energy after being dormant for at least a decade and was sending a homing signal out in distance, waiting for a person to find it.

That someone was Tilley.

“They’d given up searching for it, and that I happened to stumble across it,” he said.

Tilley traces his fascination with distance back to some 60 Minutes  special he watched when he had been a child.

His father was an amateur radio operator, so he managed to use his dad’s equipment found around the home to tinker and explore.

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He said that his love of distance was not fuelled by the objective of discovering satellites or alternative man-made objects. He loves exploration for the journey. It’s not so bad to find something important that had eluded brilliant scientists.

“You really feel as though you’ve given something of value to science,” he said.

The Washington Post