It was September 1985 when NASA scientist Robert W. Farquhar and some “accomplices”, upset that NASA had lost interest in the quest for comets due to mission cost concerns, made a decision about the ISEE-3 (International Sun-Earth Explorer 3) that would go down in space history and even merit a congratulatory letter from then-President Ronald Reagan.
While the rest of the world’s scientific community was out chasing Halley’s Comet, the United States became the first country to have a satellite intercept a comet. Farquhar, what SpaceRef.com calls a “practitioner of exotic—and esoteric—orbits . . . that swoop and swirl,” was set on changing the course of the ISEE-3. Then positioned between Earth and the Sun, Farquhar and friends found a “complicated trajectory” that allowed the ISEE-3 to intercept the comet named Giacobini-Zinner.
Farquhar recalls: “We beat all the other countries of the world. The European Space Agency. The Russians. The Japanese.” The catch is, in order to make this happen, Farquhar and his scientific sidekicks had to “steal” ISEE-3. Indeed, some scientists who were using ISEE-3 to study solar winds were not so happy about Farquhar’s “comet caper.”
He explains: “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.”
He states that the satellite was rerouted and not stolen. It was set on a specific course that would eventually bring it back.
“OK, so we took it away in 1983 and you get it back in 2014. How many years is that?” Farquhar elaborates, “(T)hat’s about 31 years.”
After approximately three decades, the green, solar-panel-covered ISEE-3 is heading back towards Earth. Farquhar, now 81 years old, wants to bring the satellite home. NASA has until sometime in early June to relay an instruction to the satellite, commanding it to fire its thrusters and move into the flight path that would put it where it in its proper place.
As this goes to press, NASA has not yet approved the move and there is a laundry list of potential problems. Most of the original team that worked with the satellite is now retired, the 1970s-1980s equipment used to direct the ISEE-3 was trashed years ago and the government always seems to have money issues. Last but not least, Farquhar’s own admittance about their chances of success when he concluded: “I think the chances are, oh, 50-50.”
(Image courtesy of EngineeringAtIllinois)