News Column

Mission to save disco-era satellite

May 23, 2014

WASHINGTON: It's plunging back through space, but also back through time, and a band of veteran scientists are determined to save a lonely satellite from the age of disco, floating homewards without a mission.

The International Sun-Earth Explorer, or ISEE-3, was built in 1978 to study the physics of solar winds.

In 1981, the spacecraft was sent on a wide orbit in search of comets. Now it is flying blind and Nasa has written it off as dead.

But, as it nears Earth once more, some scientists want to return it to its original job, including Robert Farquhar, now in his eighties.

His dream inspired a rescue team, many of them elderly engineers like himself still familiar with the mid-20th century technology of the satellite.

But these space enthusiasts won't find it an easy task.

"This is a spacecraft from the disco era. Your toaster is smarter than this," said Keith Cowing, joint leader of the project to reboot ISEE-3.

"The original hardware and software no longer exist," Cowing said, explaining how they had to search tons of old files - "mostly sitting in people's garages".

So far, they have succeeded in locating and receiving signals from the spacecraft. The next step is to send a message to it, and see if it can respond.

Cowing said there was about a 50-50 chance any of this would work.

But why bother rebooting a decades-old satellite?

Cowing said a big part of the answer was: "Because we can. It's cool."

Besides, he said, "the space craft has a lot of its original science capability. It can provide data that is actually useful". - Sapa-AFP

The Mercury

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Source: Mercury, The (South Africa)

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