ESA
An artist's rendition of the Cluster satellites in one of their orbital formations.
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updated 7/5/2011 8:29:52 PM ET 2011-07-06T00:29:52

Proving once again that not all hackers are bad, engineers from the European Space Agency performed a "dirty hack" to revive a dying scientific satellite.

Samba is one of four identical satellites that were launched in 2000 as part of the Cluster mission to study Earth's magnetosphere, the largely invisible blanket of charged particles that surrounds the planet and, not incidentally, shields us from deadly radiation.

Ground controllers at the ESA's mission center in Darmstadt, Germany, were dismayed to discover in March that Samba wasn't responding to commands. Apparently all five power relays had locked into the "closed" position.

The engineers searched the manuals for a fix, only to find none. But leaving Samba for dead would have meant scrapping the entire Cluster mission, since Samba and its siblings — Tango, Salsa and Rumba — need to dance in the sky as a foursome.

So the German rocket scientists put their heads together and devised a way to get around the problem. They rewrote some software, uploaded it to one of Samba's sisters and found that it opened the power switches.

Ground control then uploaded the same code to Samba itself, took a deep breath and pressed "Enter." The power switches opened and Samba came back to life.

"The solution was based on a 'dirty hack' — jargon referring to any non-standard procedure — but we really had no other option," Cluster operations manager Juergen Volpp said in an ESA press release.

"When everything goes as planned, flying a mission can be routine," said head of mission operations Manfred Warhaut. "But when unexpected trouble occurs, and there's nothing in the manuals, you really want to have an experienced and talented team on hand to solve the problem."

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