Amateur astronomer discovers NASA satellite lost for 12 years

The IMAGE spacecraft undergoing launch preparations in early 2000. (NASA)

An amateur astronomer from Canada has re-discovered a satellite of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) which has been lost in space for 12 years.

Richard Tilley was scanning the skies in search of traces from the secretive Zuma mission launched by Elon Musk’s SpaceX when he came across signals from a satellite that was not accounted for. Tilley was then able to match the signal to a NASA spacecraft and speculated that it might be the long-lost satellite called IMAGE, which is short for Imager for Magnetopause-to-Aurora Global Exploration.

The 47-year old amateur astronomer wrote a lengthy blog post about his findings and reached out to the principal investigator who had been responsible for IMAGE’s mission. “I did a little Googling and discovered that it had been ‘Lost in Space’ since December 18, 2005 after just dropping off the grid suddenly,” said Tilley.

In response, NASA investigated the findings and used its Deep Space Network radio telescopes to home in on the signal that Tilley discovered. The agency then confirmed that it was indeed its lost IMAGE satellite. NASA also discovered that the main control system of the satellite is still operational, after reading “some basic housekeeping data from the spacecraft.”

IMAGE was launched into space back in March 2000 in a mission to study the magnetic field that shields the Earth. The mission was hailed as a success after it was able to map out the planet’s magnetosphere, resulting in 37 new scientific discoveries.

The mission was originally meant to last for two years, but the satellite remained in extended operations until it fell out of contact in December 2005.

After several failed attempts at regaining control of IMAGE, NASA concluded that the spacecraft must have suffered an event that disabled its power supply from which it was unable to recover. The agency officially called the mission off in 2007.