NASA 'Space Thief' Ready to Return Satellite
Robert Farquhar says he 'borrowed' ISEE-3 31 years ago
By Kate Seamons, Newser Staff
Posted Mar 18, 2014 8:24 AM CDT
This Oct. 31, 1998 photo illustration shows the Comet Giacobini-Zinner, a fairly frequent visitor to the inner solar system.   (AP Photo/National Optical Astronomy Observatory/ Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy/National Science)

(Newser) – It was a feat then-President Ronald Reagan marked with a congratulatory letter: In September 1985, as the rest of the world was chasing Halley's Comet, the US became the first to have a satellite intercept a comet, one named Giacobini-Zinner. Thing is, we achieved the feat after NASA scientist Robert Farquhar "stole" the satellite. Now, 31 years after the 1983 hijacking, he wants to return it to its intended course. NPR reports on the fascinating decades-old story, in which Farquhar and some "accomplices," frustrated that NASA decided to sit out on the comet quest over mission-cost concerns, determined that he could change the course of the International Sun-Earth Explorer 3 (ISEE-3), a satellite then positioned between those two bodies.

Farquhar is what SpaceRef.com calls a "practitioner of exotic—and esoteric—orbits ... that swoop and swirl," and thanks to the "complicated trajectory" he designed for ISEE-3, Farquhar achieved his intended feat. But the change put it on a three-decade-long orbit around the sun, much to the chagrin of the scientists who were using ISEE-3. Farquhar insists he only borrowed the satellite, whose re-routed course was designed to eventually take it back to its original path—if NASA will play ball. The agency has until roughly early June to send a command to ISEE-3, ordering it to fire its thrusters and enter a flight path that would return it to where it should be. NASA has yet to green light the move, and there are potential pitfalls: A large part of the team that worked on ISEE-3 has retired, and much of the '70s- and '80s-era equipment used to communicate with the satellite was long-ago junked. And then there's Farquhar's own assessment on the potential for success: "I think the chances are, oh, 50-50." (More outer space news: Mercury has been shrinking.)

More From Newser
My Take on This Story
To report an error on this story,
notify our editors.
NASA 'Space Thief' Ready to Return Satellite is...
16%
20%
3%
51%
1%
9%
Show results without voting
You Might Like
Comments
Showing 3 of 10 comments
FarmerMichael
Mar 19, 2014 5:48 PM CDT
Just like the original bank heists via computer were hired to prevent the next ones, original hackers ruled. Now, I wonder if he could crash this thing with good accuracy? i have a few targets in mind....
mind_riot
Mar 18, 2014 2:45 PM CDT
i cant believe this Farquhar , can steal a satellite and its like no big whoop , he is one crazy Farquhar . they should talk to his wife and see what the mother Farquhar has to say
HonkUSA
Mar 18, 2014 9:04 AM CDT
So Robert Farquhar , stole this satellite , why didn't he get exiled to Saturn or some distant . penal planet ?. Steal a car or anything else and there are consequences . Maybe they should let him steal a few Russian ones ? . Talking of Russia , what happens now if the Russian Cosmonauts hijack the ' Space Station' , is that deemed a part of Russia also by PUTIN ?. Just a thought .