A Retired Satellite Gets Back To Work

After 31 years in space, ISEE-3 is finally coming home.

The International Sun-Earth Explorer 3 was a humble satellite launched in the late 1970s to monitor solar winds – until Robert Farquhar commandeered and reprogrammed it to help the United States become the first country to encounter a comet.

Now, a team of scientists have come together in an unofficial effort to awaken the sleeping spacecraft and return it to its original spot — and function — by combining old technology with new.

Next week, if all goes well, the team will command the satellite to fire its engines once again to orbit the Earth and monitor the Earth’s weather.

NPR’s Nell Greenfieldboyce speaks with Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson about Farquhar’s efforts in the 1970s and now.

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JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:

A vintage, NASA spacecraft that's been wandering through space for decades, could get a new mission. Next week, if all goes well, a team of volunteer space geeks will command the old satellite to fire its engines. That should change its flight path, send it skimming over the surface of the moon, and then put it in a new orbit that would once again allow it to do useful science.

In a few minutes we'll find out more about what's happening now. But first for some background. Here's NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce in a report from earlier this year on why anyone cares about this aging piece of space hardware and why it's particularly special to one man who's a legend at NASA.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: Back in the 1980's, space agencies were racing to be the first to fly by a comet - Haley's comet to be precise. But NASA wasn't going because it was too expensive. That did not sit well with the NASA mission designer named Bob Farquhar.

He figured out how to divert an existing satellite that was stationed between the Earth and the Sun. He came up with a complicated trajectory that would let it intercept a different comet, months before the Armada of space probes would arrive at Haley's.

BOB FARQUHAR: We beat all the other countries of the world, the European Space Agency, the Russians, the Japanese.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says he got a congratulatory letter from President Ronald Regan, though not everyone was amused by the comet caper, like some of the scientists who had been using the spacecraft, called IC3 to study things like the solar wind.

FARQUHAR: And they felt like we took the space craft away from them too early. They thought - that it was in the newspapers even - that we stole their spacecraft. We didn't steal it, we just borrowed it for a while, that's what I tried to tell them.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: After he flew it through the comet's tail, he set it on a course that would bring it back, eventually.

FARQUHAR: OK, so we took it away in 1983 and you get it back in 2014. How many years is that? So that's about 30 - 31 years?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Bob Farquhar is now 81 years old. He's been called the master of getting to places. His genius is inventing esoteric flight plans that take advantage of gravitational boosts from the moon, and close fly-bys of earth, to send space probes zipping around the solar system in surprising ways. He's so adept at calculating these exotic trajectories that often just for fun he's made sure that key mission events fall on birthdays, or anniversaries. The exploits of IC3 were the first ones to show off what he could do.

FARQUHAR: Certainly all the people at the space business know that that's my space craft. It's very personal with me.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: His memoire makes it clear how personal. For example, he writes that when he was hospitalized after a heart attack, the space craft suffered a battery failure, making him believe that they shared a supernatural connection.

FARQUHAR: It's my baby. Yeah. It's something I worked at for a long time and I had to sell it to NASA and sell it to a lot of people.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: What Farquhar is selling now is the idea of waking up this old satellite and doing what he promised - giving it back. There's a short window when it could be commanded to veer close to the moon's surface. The moon's gravity would change its path and basically make it return to the spot where it was before it went off chasing comets. One of the people he's convinced is Daniel Baker.

DANIEL BAKER: It would not just be a curiosity, it would actually be a useful scientific tool.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Baker is Director of the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado. He says, these days other satellites are stationed between the earth and the sun. Still, this one would give them valuable additional measurements. He actually worked on IC3 when he was younger.

BAKER: It's not often that something that you've sent off, in - supposedly into oblivion - sort of comes back to you - nature brings it back to you.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says during its long voyage through vastness of space, this good little robot has presumably just been tending to its business, ready to obey whatever command might come next. He finds it satisfying that without missing a beat, it could go back to the job it was supposed to do when it launched in 1978.

BAKER: It really to me is a fascinating thing that we can even dream of reassembling the puzzle here, and put it back the way, sort of, it was before Bob stole the spacecraft.

JAMES GREEN: You know, Bob Farquhar is a man of his word. If he said he would do everything he could because he's borrowed the spacecraft to put it back, and that's what he's going to try to do.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: James Green is sitting in NASA headquarters where he's director of the Planetary Science Division. Green says around NASA this guy is a legend.

GREEN: We owe a lot to Bob's creativeness - to get our spacecraft in locations that we want them. And so from that perspective, he's really a neat guy - really important in our field.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Well he knows where he wants this spacecraft.

GREEN: (Laughing) Well, wishing doesn't make it so and we have to at least find out the health of the spacecraft before we even make the decision of doing that.

HOBSON: That report from NPR's Greenfieldboyce earlier this year. Well, Nell is with us now to tell us what's happening with this. Nell, what did NASA decide to do?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Well, there are major challenges in trying to communicate with an old spacecraft like this, because deep space communication has changed radically over the last 25 years. As NASA started poking around they realized that some of the hardware they needed to talk to this thing was just gone. They had thrown it out. So it was starting to look like it would be quite an effort to contact this spacecraft and NASA wasn't going to do it.

So this group of sort of volunteers stepped forward led by these guys - Keith Cowing and Dennis Wingo. And they've got some sort of group of retirees and people - they call themselves kind of space cowboys. And they raised $150,000 on-line through donations and convinced NASA to let them have a go at this.

HOBSON: And have they managed to contact the spacecraft?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: They did. They pulled out old manuals and figured out what language this old machine speaks. And they, you know, have been using big antennas and they finally got this thing to listen to a command and then respond. And it's a little bit old, a little bit crotchety, but it's been listening to them and doing small things in response to their commands. So it's all going pretty well.

HOBSON: Have you been in touch with Bob Farquhar who we were hearing there in the story about this? And what does he think of it?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Well, he's thrilled. I mean, he says it's basically a miracle that they got this thing back on-line. I asked him what he thought the chances were that they'd actually be able to maneuver it into a new position where it could do science, and here's what he said.

FARQUHAR: Well I'm more optimistic than I was a few months ago. I'd give it about a 60 percent chance. There's too many things that can go wrong.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: So, you know, some of those things are going to come as they try to actually fire the spacecraft's engines and get it to go on a new trajectory. They're sort of going to change its course. That will come next week if all goes well.

And what they're going to do is put it on a course that will send it within about 30 miles of the surface of the moon. So that will be a sort of dicey maneuver. That'll happen in August and then after a few more maneuvers, hopefully they'll have this thing in a new spot and it'll start monitoring the space weather, which is basically what it was supposed to do when it launched, way back when.

HOBSON: There is a part of me that wonders if this is like going back and getting an old remote control that's not up to date with the new stuff that we can do with all these fancy new universal remote controls. Why would you go back to get an old spacecraft instead of just building a new one?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Well, you know, they say this thing could still do good science and why not use it? And also I think it's just a chance for citizens to get involved and do the kinds of things that ordinarily only NASA can do.

HOBSON: NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce joining us from Washington. Nell, thank you.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.