An Ex-NASA Engineer's Plot To Return A Stolen Spacecraft To Earth

Tuesday, 18 March 2014 - 10:04AM
Tuesday, 18 March 2014 - 10:04AM
An Ex-NASA Engineer's Plot To Return A Stolen Spacecraft To Earth
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He has been labelled 'The Master of Getting Places', which when you work for NASA, is no small compliment. But Robert Farquhar has also been called a satellite thief. In 1983, the former NASA mission specialist was accused of commandeering a satellite, diverting it from its proposed mission and sending it to intercept a comet. Now, 31 years after the satellite was diverted from it's mission to study solar winds, the satellite could be about to return into the lives of those who lost it, and the man who took it from them.


The satellite in question was the International Sun-Earth Explorer-3 (ISEE-3) and it was launched with the express purpose of parking up in an orbit between Earth and the Sun. Farquhar designed the spacecraft and crafted the elaborate flight path that would see ISEE-3 reach its desired orbit, in fact, innovative and elaborate flight paths were his specialty. In this unique position between our home planet and our host star, ISEE-3 was able to study a range of areas including plasma sheets and solar winds. It was in itself a groundbreaking and highly productive mission. But in the early 1980's Halley's comet was all anyone in the scientific community could talk about, and Farquhar was no exception.


Farquhar, and many like him, wanted to reach to create a successful comet fly-by to learn more about these mysterious objects. But, despite this global interest, NASA was not willing to invest in an expensive mission to intercept the comet that only stops by every 75 years. So Farquhar had another idea. Take ISEE-3 out of its current trajectory and send it after another comet, comet Giacobini-Zimmer. And, as Farquhar was wont to do, he succeeded.


"We beat all the other countries in the world. The European Space Agency. The Russians. The Japanese." Farquhar told NPR.


He's right to be excited of course. This was, after all, the first time in history that a spacecraft had successfully made a comet fly-by. But what of the scientists who were using ISEE-3 for its original mission?


"They thought that - it was in the newspapers, even - that we stole their spacecraft," said Farquhar. "We didn't steal it; we just borrowed it for a while! That's what we tried to tell them."


This summer, 31 years after ISEE-3 set course for Giacobini-Zimmer, Farquhar wants to stay true to his word and return ISEE-3 to its intended place, closer to Earth. If this is to happen, a signal must be sent to the slumbering spacecraft telling it to slow down and attempt an ambitious flight path back towards Earth. But how does anyone go about reviving a spacecraft that has been asleep since 1997? Well Farquhar, even at the age of 81, is not just anyone.


The man is something of a legend at NASA and as such, he still has a lot of friends in the agency; many of whom want this recapture to succeed. Even so, the planned recturn of ISEE-3 is fraught with obstacles, the largest of which is the comparatively ancient technology that exists within it. NASA's systems have seen a complete overhaul in recent years and finding a piece of equipment that can communicate with the bygone satellite has been quite a challenge. NASA's best hope lays with a satellite dish at the Johns Hopkins Physics Lab in Maryland and engineers are set to start testing the 18 meter giant, soon.


Farquhar may be keen on keeping his word, but this goes beyond that. The ex-NASA man has a profound attachment with this spacecraft, an attachment that was built up through years of labouring towards launching it into space. Should Farquhar and NASA succeed in bringing ISEE-3 back to life, it would be yet another chapter in the history of an extraordinary man, and a spacecraft he technically stole.


For more quotes and coverage on this story, visit NPR at the link below: