back to article NASA finds satellite, realises it has lost the software and kit that talk to it

NASA has announced it will try to wake up the “zombie satellite” IMAGE, unexpectedly found working by an amateur sat-spotter. Magnetosphere scanner IMAGE went silent, and was presumed dead, back in 2005. Then this month, while looking for the US military's failed Zuma satellite, skywatcher Scott Tilley caught a signal from the …

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  1. Doctor Evil

    So -- confirmed. Well done, Scott Tilley of Roberts Creek, BC, Canada. Thumbs up from right across the Strait.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Not wanting to take away from his claim to fame and the effort he has put in but it was an accidental re-discovery - a case of luckly to be looking in the right place at the right time.

      1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

        "a case of luckly to be looking in the right place at the right time."

        In the field of observation, chance favors the prepared mind. Pasteur.

        1. dajames Silver badge

          "a case of luckly to be looking in the right place at the right time."

          In the field of observation, chance favors the prepared mind. Pasteur.

          Nice one. So ... he was lucky to be looking in the right place at the right time, but at least he has the nous to understand what he was seeing.

          Seems fair.

          1. Dinsdale247

            I don't see what's lucky about spending years of your life preparing for the chance to catch a signal. You think he just accidentally had a receiver and decoders sitting around his house?

        2. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

          Yep, in a similar vein

          The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not “Eureka!” (I found it!) but “That’s funny …”

          (Usually attributed to Isaac Asimov)

      2. EarthDog

        Often that is how Astronomy works

      3. emess

        Not wanting to take away from his claim to fame and the effort he has put in ...

        Then don't

      4. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        The same can be said of Alexander Fleming and others; it doesn't detract from the achievement.

  2. Stuart Halliday

    NASA, no concept of archiving. Should we be worried?

    1. tony trolle

      what could happen lose control of a space station....

      anyway dumpsters are fun

      https://www.theregister.co.uk/2010/12/08/nasa_disk_wiping_failure/

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      It was also HARDWARE that no longer exists.

      Even if the software is around it is harder to reconstruct the hardware if that is no longer commercially available

      1. Warm Braw Silver badge

        Re: It was also HARDWARE that no longer exists.

        I'd be surprised if the signalling from a satellite launched in 2000 were so high-speed or so complex that it couldn't be processed in software these days - assuming the effort is justified.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: It was also HARDWARE that no longer exists.

          "..assuming the effort is justified." I imagine that's also part of their conversation. It maybe that what Image is doing is being done by other satellites already.

        2. Dinsdale247

          Re: It was also HARDWARE that no longer exists.

          You'd still need decoding software. The binary formats would be very very very complex and just writing the software to do that isn't really possible without the background documentation (Inter-Communication Documents is what we call them). SO, you either need the original documents to re-write it, the original software that runs on the potentially very custom hardware, or you need the source code to rebuild it against a new set of tools and libraries. If the original authors relied on any hardware specific processing tricks, the software may not even be usable. If they relied on an open source package that may have changed, God help them (oops, that option doesn't exist in a modern kernel, sorry!)

          And then there's the drivers to the hardware that talks to it...

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: It was also HARDWARE that no longer exists.

            Who says it is transmitting as binary data?

            There are plenty of other transmission formats availible including analogy systems that would defy sampling.

          2. fajensen Silver badge
            Paris Hilton

            Re: It was also HARDWARE that no longer exists.

            You'd still need decoding software.

            One advantage that places like NASA has, is a near infinite supply of grad students with no life of their own yet, many of them quite smart too. They could get a bunch of them to hack something up in GNU-radio for the Glory and for their school project.

      2. whollyfool

        Re: It was also HARDWARE that no longer exists.

        Hardware can/should be archived as well. Granted that it does not always hold up as well as one would wish....

        1. Jon 37

          Re: It was also HARDWARE that no longer exists.

          > Hardware can/should be archived as well

          It certainly _can_ be archived. But _why_ should hardware for communicating with a _dead_ satellite be archived? Who's going to pay for it to be preserved and packaged for storage, and pay for the storage costs for over 10 years, and _why_ are they going to do that? If you think NASA should pay, remember NASA has a fixed budget, so why do you think preserving hardware for a believed-to-be-dead satellite is more important than any of the science that NASA decided to do with that money?

          Also, unless you had a crystal ball to forsee the future, there was no way to know that this particular satellite was going to come back from the dead, so saying "they should have archived the hardware for _this_ satellite" doesn't make sense, the question is whether they should have archived the hardware for _all_ dead-but-not-completely-destroyed satellites, which is much more expensive.

          1. Orv Silver badge

            Re: It was also HARDWARE that no longer exists.

            I think it also helps to understand how government-owned equipment is tracked and handled.

            In a public agency, when you buy something, it goes on the books at the value you paid for it. Unlike in private industry, it does not depreciate. You have to account for that thing, at full value, until it's eventually auctioned off.

            This makes retaining disused equipment a real pain in the butt, because someone's going to have to go physically find it and inventory it every time there's an audit -- otherwise you'll have headlines about how your agency "lost $1.2 million in equipment paid for by taxpayer dollars" even though that equipment was worth more like $1200 by that time. Or someone will come along and ask why you're renting all that space that no one's actually using (another big budget criticism of government agencies.)

            If you keep archiving stuff, eventually your budget becomes dominated by that, and you can no longer do your agency's original mission. The best outcome is to donate it to a museum for archiving, but museums aren't always interested, especially if the equipment is bulky or is mostly just obsolete commodity hardware.

            Stuff in storage becomes a real bureaucratic headache and the incentive is to dispose of it, which is usually a good thing. Space is limited, after all. Often ground station equipment is removed to make room for a new mission. Remember, this satellite was dead as a doornail last time they checked. It's not like they pulled the plug on Voyager or something.

            That's not to say NASA couldn't do a better job with archiving important data from landmark programs -- I once met a guy who had the data tapes from Viking I in his basement, for crying out loud. But I don't think this particular mission is an example of that. You have to prioritize.

            1. Anonymous Coward
              Anonymous Coward

              Re: It was also HARDWARE that no longer exists.

              When I was a lad in uni, the research profs and their minions had access to *all kinds* of surplus US Gov't equipment. For the cost of transport, because it was a State uni. They used to store pallets of it in the corridors. There was some marvelous "previously owned electronic equipment" to be seen...mostly in shades of green and grey, with the good bits often already removed.

              I'm the proud owner of an ex-mil 5-level Typing Reperforator that nobody wanted. Strictly speaking, I own stolen government property, but after 40 years, I don't think they're going to come looking for me (but AC, just in case). If NASA needs it, though, I'll happily send it on.

              So that equipment has probably already been disassembled by some eager PhD candidate for use in his experiment.

              1. Orv Silver badge

                Re: It was also HARDWARE that no longer exists.

                Yeah, that's another popular way to get rid of it -- make it someone else's problem. ;) What doesn't go to universities or other agencies usually gets auctioned off, which is where most of the stock for military and electronic surplus stores comes from.

                People used to working in the private sector, where equipment depreciates until it's worthless on the books, really have no idea how much of a hassle public sector equipment disposal is. There are very few things that can legitimately just be thrown out, and documentation requirements are pretty thorough. It's all in the name of eliminating opportunities for fraud, but I sometimes wonder if it costs more money than it saves.

        2. Peter Gathercole Silver badge

          Re: It was also HARDWARE that no longer exists.

          Isn't a hardware archive called a museum?

        3. Lith

          Re: It was also HARDWARE that no longer exists.

          They could check eBay.

          Although this would probably cost more than their budget, I've seen 15 year old single processor servers going for over a grand

      3. Steve Hersey

        Doesn't matter.

        It's not critical if the ground support hardware no longer exists. So long as the documentation on the telemetry formats and comms parameters is still available, some bright grad student or motivated Ham radio operator can set up a software-controlled radio setup to receive and decode it, and the same goes for satellite commanding (though that requires a suitable ground control transmitter, which NASA certainly still has).

        Of course, that will require some time and money to set up, but it's not a gargantuan effort. Debugging the recreated commanding system on-orbit can be exciting, but the worst that can happen is you lose the bird again.

        Trust me, you don't want to rely on the original ground support equipment after all this time, even if you can find it. If nothing else, the ancient PC's RTC chips with their built-in batteries and configuration memory have gone dead, cannot be sourced any longer, and can only be revived by judicious use of a Dremel grinder, a coin cell battery/holder, and a soldering iron. Been there, done that on satellite ground support gear.

        1. ThatOne Silver badge

          Re: Doesn't matter.

          > the ancient PC

          Come on guys, it's not like IMAGE was built in the 1920ies... I still have a couple fully functional Win3.11 and Win98 computers in the basement, and IMAGE is more recent.

          What can be NASA's problem? Hardware? Well, Win2000 (or even Win98) runs just fine in a VM, so you can run it on about anything. The only problem I can see is software, for instance if it required some rare custom program which has been lost and (quite understandably) can't be retrieved from elsewhere. That would indeed be a problem (read: expensive).

          Still I can't imagine they didn't back up those things: It's not some mom & pop store, it's NASA for crying out loud... Would it had gone over their budget to burn a $2 backup CD/DVD every now and then?

          No, I'm rather sensing a "hot potato" effect here: Everybody is already busy on other projects and there is no budget for this, so very much like a very sick parent dropping in unexpectedly, you will have to do this on your free time, on top of everything else, and without budget.

          We (unaffected spectators) are obviously rooting for the plucky spacecraft come back from the dead, but I guess for NASA it feels more like a (small scale) zombie invasion.

          1. Weiss_von_Nichts

            Re: Doesn't matter.

            What someone higher up the thread mentioned about battery-backed RTC chips lets me assume that these machines were not exactly running Windows. Usually you would find that sort of hardware in ancient Unix machines. Makes sense, as SUNs, SGIs and the like were running 64bit OS long before you could find x64 systems.

            1. Orv Silver badge

              Re: Doesn't matter.

              I think the RTC chip thing was speculation, but you're right that it would have been kind of unusual to use Windows (or even x86) for this kind of project back then.

          2. katrinab Silver badge

            Re: Doesn't matter.

            Virtual machines are fine for anything that runs on a PC with standard hardware. Drivers for custom-made communication hardware that doesn't exist any more, that would be more of a problem.

      4. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: It was also HARDWARE that no longer exists.

        I have no idea why people have down voted you. Old hardware for which there is no longer a use gets thrown out and the components used to build it become obsolete and impossible to source so what should be trivial becomes a major redesign project where the cost to potential gain makes it potentially not worth pursuing.

      5. Daniel 18

        Re: It was also HARDWARE that no longer exists.

        One would think that in this age of software defined radios, the hardware exists, even if it needs a new configuration...

    3. Jason Bloomberg Silver badge
      Alien

      NASA, no concept of archiving

      I don't see where the evidence is to draw such a conclusion. NASA has so far merely said it's going to require some effort since things have moved on.

      Whenever someone comes in with an 'about this project from a decade ago' request; there's inevitably an ensuing hunt to find the documentation, the software, and where that might have been archived.

      That all takes time and not unreasonably. I would give NASA the benefit of the doubt until they have identified what they have got and what they haven't.

      1. nowave7

        True, but “significant reverse-engineering” is a bit of a harsh word used to describe finding something in the archive.

      2. William Higinbotham

        The software and manuals are in the basement of one of the Smithsonian buildings. Good luck.

    4. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

      "NASA, no concept of archiving."

      It's not as if source code control systems were a new thing.

      1. Stuart 22

        I suspect the real problem is not technical but is NASA has no budget for this long dead project. It isn't a part of the success objectives for 2018. When the Orange One is slashing anything that looks like a federal budget that doesn't personally service him - its going to take a tough/stupid manager to divert resources to this one.

        I assume they will just post the challenge in the rest rooms and hope some team wants to moonlight for glory - good luck guys & guyesses!

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          When the Orange One is slashing anything

          So once again, Trump's fault? Don't you feel just a little bit silly?

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            So once again, Trump's fault? Don't you feel just a little bit silly?

            He probably cannot help himself. Some people are bound to the unrelenting dogmas of their religions. *shrug*

          2. Stuart 22

            Re: When the Orange One is slashing anything

            "So once again, Trump's fault? Don't you feel just a little bit silly?"

            I said the financial problem was probably due to no budget for this project and the existing budgets being cut. The latter is the president's responsibility and that is indeed what he has done unless you consider this 'fake news':

            http://spacenews.com/white-house-proposes-19-1-billion-nasa-budget-cuts-earth-science-and-education/

            Can we stick to facts rather than abuse?

            1. Anonymous Coward
              Anonymous Coward

              Re: When the Orange One is slashing anything

              "Can we stick to facts rather than abuse?"

              1) Facts: You mean like budgets are written and passed by Congress?

              2) Abuse? Oh, come on. If you consider "silly" is abuse, you're beyond all hope.

              1. Orv Silver badge

                Re: When the Orange One is slashing anything

                Pfft, Congress doesn't pass budgets anymore. They just kick the can down the road a few months at a time with continuing resolutions.

        2. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          The Orange One is a space cadet.

        3. Jtom Bronze badge

          Relax. The only money Trump cut was from Obama'a NASA Muslim outreach program that was funded out of the education and research categories of their budget. Does anyone have a problem with that?

    5. Fred Flintstone Gold badge

      NASA, no concept of archiving. Should we be worried?

      It's in the name, really. Not A Software Archive :)

    6. phuzz Silver badge

      They might have a copy of the code, but more likely it's a set of config files for software from pre-2001. So they have to find some way of running the old communications programs (that are probably no longer sold/maintained) in a way that lets them interface with modern receiving hardware, and still run the configs written for the specific satellite twenty years ago.

      More likely they'll go back to the specs and re-engineer it from scratch on modern SDRs.

    7. Charles Calthrop

      Nasa and the preservation of knowledge

      A colleague was at a IA conference at NASA when some NASA bod stood up and caused some consternation by saying if they were told to fly to the moon tomorrow, they'd have to start from scratch because every appollo mission used different procedures and nothing was written down, it was all in the head of retired engineers*. The thing is, this is a known, old problem, and we have basically infinite storage and matrure solutions. It shouldn't be such a big problem.

      *Mainly cos they didn't actually go in the first place .

      1. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge

        Re: Nasa and the preservation of knowledge

        Charles Calthrop,

        NASA wrote loads of stuff down - they had whole books of procedures. Whether that's the right stuff, and whether that's all the required stuff is another matter. Also how much of it was kept, but there are lots of archives, including recordings and transcripts of the radio and mission control chatter for entire missions.

        They'd have to start from scratch, because rebuilding the Saturn V and Apollo capsules, that they've still got the blueprints for, would mean retooling factories and retraining engineers to use old tech we no longer have. So you'd have to re-design them to some extent anyway, using modern methods. You'd certainly want to use modern computers - given that Apollo 11 had various computer errors when trying to land - as the poor pooter didn't have enough RAM to cope with the radar data and the landing data at the same time. The radar should have been switched off, if I recall correctly.

        At which point you'd use NASA's SLS and Orion - that've been tested once, or SpaceX's cheaper Falcon Heavy and Dragon II (due to both test this year?).

        You're still going to need a lunar lander - or a refuellable Dragon II. And I'm not sure if either SLS or Falcon Heavy can get sufficient mass to lunar orbit that you can do all this with one launch, rather than 2 and having to rendevous in either Earth or lunar orbit.

        1. Beachrider

          Re: Nasa and the preservation of knowledge

          Dragon II is NOT configured for deepspace. It relies on the Van Allen belts to shield substantial radiation, just like any LEO device.

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Nasa and the preservation of knowledge

        *Mainly cos they didn't actually go in the first place .

        Please stop teasing the gullible, they'll only quote you.

        Of course they went and more surprisingly they came back. Gutsy stuff and great engineering.

    8. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Who else do you know that fails to archive?

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