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

(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.)

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)
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