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April 12, 2014

Space Science Center wants to bring spacecraft home after 31 years

Morehead — A car-sized spacecraft launched in 1978 to measure the solar wind, then repurposed to fly alongside two comets, then lost and silent for decades, could be recycled again into a sun observation platform now that it has been found … again. 

And Morehead State’s Space Science Center may get the keys to drive it.

During the announcement Thursday of the Craft Academy for Science and Mathematics in the rotunda to the MSU’s Space Science Center, space systems engineer Robert Kroll and electrical engineer Jeffery Kruth made their way down from the second-floor control room with barely-controlled excitement. They had to tell center director Ben Malphrus the “big news.”

Using the dish on a mountain above the university, they had found the beacon signal to the International Cometary Explorer, originally called the International Sun-Earth Explorer 3 (ISEE-3), launched in August 1978.  The craft was the first to achieve Lagrangian Libration Point 1, a relatively stationary orbital position between the Earth and the sun. From there, it achieved another first: it observed and measured the solar wind against the Earth’s magnetic field.

And then it was “stolen” by Robert Farquha, the very man who pioneered the Lagrangian Libration Point 1 orbit.

He convinced NASA that he could take the spacecraft out of Lagrangian Liberation Point 1 and use a series of what are commonly referred to as slingshot maneuvers using the Earth, sun and moon as gravitational engines and hurl the craft farther into the solar system to meet up with Comet Halley. 

Using Farquha’s methods in 1983, NASA used a complicated series of gravitational twists and turns to whip the spacecraft on a path through the tail of the Comet Giacobini-Zinner in 1985 and then the 1986 encounter with Comet Halley. The method worked and the renamed ICE made it to Haley’s Comet before an armada from other countries arrived.

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