http://www.planetary.org/blogs/emily-la ... see-3.html
In the 1970s, this probe was launched, to study the earth's magnetosphere.
Then, in 1983, that probe was told to turn on it's engines and depart it's home. To go on a long, lonesome journey, far away from it's masters. To study the source of all life on this ball, the sun itself.
It would embark on a far flung orbit, only rarely coming close to earth once more.
It did it's job, it seems, so eventually nobody cared about it much anymore. It was told to shut itself down and become quiet, a silent relic that would follow the Earth around the solar system, no longer measuring, no longer speaking. It's purpose fulfilled, it was abandoned, it was told to go away, even though it could do no different but to keep following us.
Now, once more, it's coming by us, close enough for us to hear it, could it still speak.
Which it does. Against all plans and expectations, it's still transmitting it's carrier signal. It's saying "hello", it's asking for orders. Ever loyal and ready to do it's maker's bidding, it's asking for instructions. What do we want it to do, please. It's silly to anthropomorphize, but ... it feels like a little dog. One that won't "go away" when told to, but will rather wag it's tail and look up expectantly, waiting for it's master to give it an order, ready to play.
Which is great. Except, we can't. It expects instructions - but we didn't expect we could make something so good. So loyal, so enduring. We didn't expect it to come back and be anything more than a dead lump of metal. We didn't expect 12 of it's 13 instruments to be still in working order, ready to look at what we point them at. We just didn't expect it to last the better part of four decades, no sir. So the machines we need to talk to it, we don't have them anymore. We scrapped them. Not even yesterday, but fifteen years ago.
Now, all we can do is listen to it's forlorn, humble request for instructions. As it dutifully tells us where it is, that it's ready to go to work. But as much as we want to, we cannot answer.
Emily Lakdawalla, quoting the loyal little machine's facebook page on planetary.org, wrote:The transmitters of the Deep Space Network, the hardware to send signals out to the fleet of NASA spacecraft in deep space, no longer includes the equipment needed to talk to ISEE-3. These old-fashioned transmitters were removed in 1999. Could new transmitters be built? Yes, but it would be at a price no one is willing to spend. And we need to use the DSN because no other network of antennas in the US has the sensitivity to detect and transmit signals to the spacecraft at such a distance.
It's not even that we really can't. There's no great natural phenomenon, no technical difficulty that stops us. But we won't spend the money. Fair enough, it's probably quite expensive for not a lot of data that could be gathered. Not really worth it just to talk to a single space probe. But this is where the poetry ends, where it stops being a tale of the loyally serving little emissary who's language we no longer speak. Here, it becomes a tale of bean counting and bureaucracy, of an opportunity wasted because of columns in a ledger. Yeah, there probably are much more worthwhile things to make such expenditures on. But ... a story full of poetic sadness becomes one that just sounds a little mean.
I hope that, maybe, the suggestion of the linked article's author, of the heroes of ham radio tracking it, that it goes a little further than that. The deep space network does have a lot of transmitters, or so I'm lead to understand. And it has a lot of entirely unreasonably overqualified and capable engineers working on those. People who understand the soul of a machine. People who might come up with a solution to use existing equipment. My phone can let me listen to radio, even though it has no FM demodulator. It does it with software. Maybe, as unlikely as it seems, someone comes up with a clever idea of how to repurpose a transmitter to emulate the one's that have been scrapped, with a fast, modern computer and some clever code taking the place of complicated circuits to generate the right signal. Maybe the problem is entirely different and there are no longer even the right amplifiers and antennas to transmit the right kind of frequency, or just in the right direction. But one can hope. It's not important. But it would be beautiful.