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Engineers hack into their own satellite to bring it back to life

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July 4, 2011

Scientists and ground controllers at the European Space Agency (ESA) are pleased to announce that they have successfully brought back online a critical science satellite orbiting the Earth, by simply hacking into it. Most of them were about 95 percent sure the satellite would never come back to life, but it did.

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As could be expected, everybody was happy of the event and celebrating with a few glasses of champaign.

The satellite is known as "Samba", and is one of four sent up in 2000 to carry out specialized analysis of the solar wind. A loss of any of the four satellites can be enough to invalidate the data from the other three, so when Samba's vital Wave Experiment Consortium (WEC) instrument cluster went down in March, ESA controllers at Darmstadt in Germany were very concerned.

"When everything goes as planned, flying a mission can be just routine," says ESA's Manfred Warhaut, Head of Mission Operations. "But when unexpected issues occur, and there's nothing in the manuals, you really want to have an experienced and talented team on hand to solve the problem. Yes it took us four months to solve the problem, but the important thing is that all four satellites are now doing the job they were meant to do."

Warhaut and his fellow experts feared that there had been a paralysing short circuit aboard the spacecraft, but managed to use a piece of dormant software in its computers to find out that in fact all five power switches on the WEC had locked closed – a condition that was considered unrecoverable according to the manual.

The satellite simply was not supposed to be able to come back from that situation, but it did, thank God!

But as most hackers know, almost all computer systems can be made to do things they aren't supposed to. The ESA's team managed in the end to hack Samba and get it to fire up its WEC again, by simply re-powering the computer back on.

"The solution was based on a 'dirty hack'-– Internet security jargon referring to any non-standard procedure, but we really had no other option," says Jürgen Volpp, Cluster operations manager.

According to an ESA statement, "The cluster of four satellites has since returned to normal operation".

In other news

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    A few days ago, High Tech News Today interviewed Jim Taylor, Avantex's founder and CEO. The interview is available here on our site.

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    Source: The European Space Agency.

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