Games

Hack Lets You Track the International Space Station With an NES

Who wants to look up at the sky when you could be looking at your NES?
September 28, 2020, 1:00pm
A screen shot from the International Space Station tracking project for NES.
Screen shot courtesy of Vi Grey

People have done a lot of weird things with the NES in the more than 30 years since it was released. There are bizarre peripherals best left to the trash bin of history, like Konami's voice-activated LaserScope that barely worked, and there are wonderful experiments that push and pull at the hardware's capabilities in ways Nintendo could have never imagined.

The International Space Station Tracker, made by longtime homebrew developer Vi Grey, does exactly what it absurdly promises: it allows you to use an NES to track the current location of the International Space Station, as it slowly floats above and around the Earth. 

While Nintendo did release a dial-up modem for the NES in 1988 (in Japan), the NES wasn't an Internet device, and so the way Grey pulls this off is interesting. You can personally load a ROM developed by Grey into an NES emulator and run a script that pulls the ISS location data, but Grey separately found a way to make the experiment run on an actual NES, too. 

The data is then fed to the NES with custom hardware that goes through the controller port.

A long and technical writeup of how Grey made this work was published on his blog.

Grey says the idea came during an evening of pure coincidence. A friend sent a photo of his family sitting around a campfire, the ISS plainly visible above the flames, and later that evening, Grey also saw the ISS floating by. (This sounds absurd, but it's technically possible.)

"The ISS may only be about 400 km above the earth at any moment, but it is still a shining beacon of curiosity and hope of scientific progress," said Grey in a release about the project.

This isn't the first time Grey has pulled off something absurd with the NES. Remember when someone ported a version of Discord, the popular chat app, to NES? That was also Grey.

Grey was responsible for Twitch chat showing up on an NES, too. 

In a separate conversation with VICE Games, Grey mentioned how when they were young, they’d play Super Mario Bros. 3 and wish they were one of the people who'd made it. These days, they’re the one making experiments on the NES, even if it's now considered "old."

The NES, Grey pointed out, is like a lot of modern technology: a computer. It's dressed up in a very specific way, sure, but at the end of the day, it's a computer with some fancy branding.

"The NES is a computer and honestly one of my favorite computers to program for," said Grey in the release. "This project, like many others I have created, is an attempt to show people that very fact. The NES may not run anywhere near as fast as your phone, but it still is about 40 times faster than the computer used for the Apollo 11 mission."