In 1999, as the world was bracing for Y2K, NASA trashed some old transmitters it had used to talk to spaceships that were no longer in use.
But one of those spaceships forgot to die.
ISEE-3 was launched in 1978, conducting groundbreaking missions that included studies of solar wind and comet flybys. In 1997, it was left to sail away, 850 pounds of metal floating through the junkyard of space. But someone neglected to turn it off.
In 2008, NASA realized the poor satellite was circling the sun, still waiting for orders from its home planet. But those orders never came. Even though scientists could listen to ISEE-3—determining 12 of its 13 instruments were still working—they had no way of telling it what to do next. It spoke a lost language.
Next month, ISEE-3 will finally come home, its first visit in 30 years (its slightly faster orbit means it has done 31 laps of the Sun in the same time Earth has done 30). It would have been the perfect chance to use the Earth's gravity to send it on a new mission. Everyone thought it was a lost opportunity. ISEE-3 would miss Earth and sail right on by, floating farther and farther out of our reach.
Enter Skycorp. The California company asked NASA to let it try to save ISEE-3. The agency had said earlier that trying to rebuild the necessary transmitters wasn't worth the investment. With nothing to lose, NASA gave Skycorp permission to try to talk to its forsaken satellite.