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Retired spaceflight engineer and team bring back to life a 3-decade-old spacecraft

Artist’s concept image of Sun-Earth Explorer 3 spacecraft. (NASA)
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In 1978, Robert Farquhar helped launch NASA’s International Sun-Earth Explorer 3 spacecraft from Florida’s Space Coast into orbit. ISEE-3’s goal was to measure charged particles flowing from the sun.

Instead, it became the first satellite to “park” in a place where two bodies’ gravitational fields balanced, the Los Angeles Times reported.

The spacecraft was renamed ICE and earned fame when it made contact with a comet in 1985, passing through the tail of Comet Giacobini-Zinner.

Some three decades later, Farquhar, the now 82-year-old spaceflight engineer, along with a team of so-called “citizen scientists,” is picking up where he left off by bringing back to life a spacecraft that has been dormant its graveyard orbit since 1997 when NASA ended its mission.

On July 2, the Cold War-era satellite fired its first thrusts since 1987, according to team members of the ISEE-3 Reboot Project.

“All in all, a very good day,” co-leader Keith Cowing wrote in a blog post.

Though made up largely of former NASA employees, ISEE-3 Reboot Project’s private group also has some younger space-lovers on board.

“Some of our team members were not even born yet the last time the engines fired,” the team said via Twitter.

In May, NASA gave the team permission to attempt to put the spacecraft back into service for its own research purposes.

The team only needed money. So two of Farquhar’s associates, Cowing, a former NASA astrobiologist, and Dennis Wingo, chief executive of the small space engineering firm Skycorp, proposed a crowdfunding campaign. The group has raised nearly $160,000 so far through donations.

“Our plan is simple: we intend to contact the ISEE-3 spacecraft, command it to fire its engines and enter an orbit near Earth, and then resume its original mission,” Keith Cowing, who runs the NASA Watch Web site, wrote in a project status report in May. “If we are successful it may also still be able to chase yet another comet.”

If the effort is unsuccessful, the spacecraft will slide by the moon and continue to circle the sun, according to Reuters.

The purpose of the project is two-fold. According to the Economist:

One of them to ignite interest among the general population about space exploration and research at a time when the costs of launching objects into orbit around earth have fallen sharply. … Another is to show how modern tools, such as software-defined radios (in which a radio’s capabilities are defined in computer software rather than in a specific piece of hardware), can be used in powerful ways that formerly required a massive capital infrastructure. These days, miracles can be accomplished with a small bit of radio hardware and a laptop. And the reboot will generate new scientific research. The first science data in 29 years was received days ago from the craft’s magnetometer. (At 44 years old, the magnetometer is even more ancient than the rest of the craft: it is a prototype built for the Pioneer missions several years earlier.)

The group is now gathering data from the spacecraft in preparation for its next contact with the Deep Space Network, a collection of NASA dishes the team is renting to get precise information on ISEE-3’s location, reported. The next step will be to change the spacecraft’s trajectory, which could happen early this week, according to reports.

Trajectory efforts will be led by Farquhar and his team at KinetX, according to The team is also working in collaboration with the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters, NASA Goddard Spaceflight Center and the Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute at NASA Ames Research Center.

“New data resulting from the project will be shared with the science community and the public, providing a unique tool for teaching students and the public about spacecraft operations and data-gathering,” according to NASA’s press release.