Local space enthusiasts race to reach abandoned NASA satellite

WASHINGTON (WUSA9) -- Thirty-six years ago, NASA launched a disco-era satellite to study solar weather.

The spacecraft went on to discover how solar flares can disrupt communications on earth and also became the first satellite to chase down a comet, flying by Halley's comet in 1986 and confirming it's essentially a giant ball of ice.

But as newer, more sophisticated satellites went into orbit, NASA eventually put the aging bird out to planetary pasture.

Keith Cowing, a Reston space enthusiast, does not consider the spacecraft from another era to be junk.

"Oh, no. It's a treasure. It's an opportunity. It's found science," Cowing said in an interview at his home.

"It's a cleverly designed satellite that doesn't really have a computer... Your toaster is smarter."

It may lack smarts, but it's still capable of running experiments.

So Cowing and a team of 20 convinced NASA to turn the weakened satellite over to their group of space enthusiasts.

"We've sort of taken command of an abandoned spacecraft and we're giving it back to the people who paid for it," Cowing explained.

The team raised $159,000 by crowd-funding online. The money will pay for programming, hardware, and use of radio telescopes. All the new data would be open to anyone so they can make their own discoveries about solar weather patterns or how a spacecraft ages," the scientists promise.

"This is a satellite that NASA had no intention of using again," said Geoff Yoder, the NASA official who brokered the deal. "With this unique arrangement it really will stimulate the next generation of scientists."

But the "reboot team," hunkered down at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, now faces a more urgent mission.

The spacecraft is 250,000 kilometers off course and may be headed for a collision with the Moon.

Even if it doesn't crash, it won't be this close to Earth again anytime soon.

"There is no next chance. It will be decades from now," explained Cowing. "This is it."

It's a race to recover a relic.


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