A Google Chrome Experiment Visualizes The 36-Year Journey Of A Spacecraft

A Google Creative Lab project explains the life of NASA’s ISEE-3.

In 1978, NASA launched the ISEE-3, a spacecraft designed to study the Earth’s magnetic field and its interactions with solar wind. It would later become the first spacecraft visit a comet. NASA decomissioned the spacecraft in 1997, leaving it to orbit the Sun as very expensive space trash. This year, a team of engineers, programmers, and scientists launched a crowdfunding campaign that raised more than $159,000 to try to contact ISEE-3 and take control of its operations, sending it out to chase comets again, this time for citizen science.


A new Chrome Experiment from Google Creative Lab called A Spacecraft for All tells the story of ISEE-3’s history and the recent revival effort through a combination and interactive graphics.

The design of A Spacecraft for All offers a new ways to tell these stories, rather than relying on static video illustrations to tell the story of far-flung research endeavors, like NASA used for the Mars rover landing.

“We got really excited about this project,” Google Creative Lab’s Richard The says. Over the course of a month, the Google team pulled together video interviews and designed 3-D graphics to make a complicated story about astrophysics digestible for non-NASA folks.

Over the course of its NASA career, the probe had several missions during its run with NASA, initially as the first NASA spacecraft to use halo orbit around a point between the Earth and the Sun called Sun–Earth L1 that’s ideal for monitoring solar wind.

“These are somewhat abstract concepts,” The says. Most people don’t know what Sun-Earth L1 is, and they’ll never be able to see it for themselves. “We try to have a close connection between what the scientists are talking about and what you see on the screen.” When the graphics–often an image of the Earth, Sun, and the spacecraft–pop up, users can move them around with their mouse and see them from all angles. “This is trying to walk the line between telling an interesting story to anybody and also explaining somewhat complex scientific concepts about spaceflight,” The says.

ISEE-3 being built NASA

After ISEE-3 finished its mission studying solar wind, it was relocated to intercept and collect data on comets. The team behind the ISEE-3 reboot intended to return the spacecraft to its original orbit, and this year was the ideal time to re-establish contact, since its trajectory would bring it closer to Earth than it had come in 30 years.


The site also features a live option, which lets you explore where ISEE-3 is at in its orbit right now, and it served as the focal point for a Google Hangout when ISEE-3 did a flyby only 31 miles from the moon on Sunday, showing real-time data on where the spacecraft was and what it was up to. “As soon as it becomes immersive, I think the experience is very different, and because of that more memorable,” The says.

Ultimately, the ISEE-3’s reboot team failed to redirect the spacecraft’s orbit as planned, its instruments are still collecting data, which is showcased on the site. The team plans to continue to use the data collected by ISEE-3’s working instruments.

About the author

Shaunacy Ferro is a Brooklyn-based writer covering architecture, urban design and the sciences. She's on a lifelong quest for the perfect donut.