Lost Moon Found: The Satellite That Came Back to Life

The late 1950s and early 1960s were a tumultuous time in world history. The Cold War between the East and the West was in full-swing, driving the new fields of nuclear weapons and space exploration and giving the period its dual monikers of “Atomic Age” and “Space Age.”

Changes in these fields often went hand in glove, with developments in one requiring responses in the other. In 1958, the US conducted nuclear tests in the Pacific that effectively destroyed the ionosphere over the test site and shut down high-frequency communications to places like Hawaii and New Zealand. The strategic implications of this were clear, and the US began looking for ways for the military to reduce its reliance on HF communications and ionospheric skip by using space-based assets to communicate at much higher frequencies.

Millions of Satellites: Project West Ford needles. Source: Gunter's Space Page
Millions of Satellites: Project West Ford’s needles. Source: Gunter’s Space Page

MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory was given the job of exploring space communications in the super-high frequency (SHF) band. The first idea borne of Project West Ford was to disperse half a billion 1.8 cm long #53 AWG copper needles in orbit to act as an artificial ionosphere capable of reflecting SHF signals. It worked well enough to allow voice communications between Massachusetts and California on 8 GHz, but the idea was shelved in a nod to space hygiene. Most of the needles had deorbited by 1966, but today there are still 38 clumps of needles in orbit that failed to properly disperse.

LES 1 mounted on its failed kicker motor. Source: Lincoln Laboratoiy
LES 1 mounted on its failed kicker motor. Source: Lincoln Laboratory

Lincoln scientists turned their attention to active SHF satellite communications and designed the “LES” series, for Lincoln Experimental Satellites. LES 1 was a tiny, 31 kg package that was designed to use Project West Ford’s SHF ground stations. It and its twin LES 2 each carried an X-band transponder and an 8-horn antenna along with a 237 MHz downlink, solar panels, and batteries, and were designed to study not only space communications but also to practice launching and maneuvering satellites.

LES 1 was launched from Cape Canaveral in February of 1965, but never achieved its intended orbit due to a wiring error which prevented the kicker engine from firing. LES 1 was crippled, languishing unused in a nearly circular orbit while its twin and siblings LES 3 through 9 went on to complete successful missions the contributed to satellite communications and control technology. Its 237 MHz signal stayed active, though, and continued transmitting until 1967 when something finally gave out.

LES 1 tumbled silently in orbit for the next 46 years as the Space Age roared around it. Men went to the moon and back, probes set off to explore the solar system and beyond, and bigger, more sophisticated satellites crowded into orbit with it. LES 1 would have joined the ranks of orbital flotsam if not for a strange confluence of factors that led to its signal being reacquired in 2013. Cornish amateur radio astronomer [Phil Williams (G3YPQ)] detected a faint but repeatable signal on 237 MHz. After a little sleuthing he identified it as the long-lost LES 1; other radio hobbyists have since eavesdropped on the signal from LES 1 and confirmed his findings. The working theory is that at some point in the last four decades, the satellite’s battery degraded in such a way that the solar panels were able to power the transmitter directly. The evidence for this is based on the slow warble in the signal as the satellite tumbles, exposing the solar panels to the sun at four-second intervals.

Of course there’s no way to know what happened to LES 1 for sure, but the fact that it was built robustly enough to still be operating after nearly half a century in space is a testament to the engineering team that designed and built it. LES 1 may have been a failed mission, but it was certainly built for the long haul.

[via The Vintage News]

57 thoughts on “Lost Moon Found: The Satellite That Came Back to Life

  1. You gotta love that 50s American thought process.
    “We need to bounce a signal off… something.”
    “Hey how about we throw 5300 miles of copper wire into space?”
    “Harold, you’re a goddamn genius.”

      1. And it’s STILL working.
        (for some definition of “working”)

        Thanks, Harold!
        (we’ll think of you every time we have to dodge those g*ddamn needles with our satellites)

      2. Yes it work, but communications where going to be temporary at best, because the reflector was doomed to fall out of the sky, requiring periodic launching of additional copper in orbit. I suppose kids could transition from hunting pop bottles to get some extra coin to recovering the fallen copper some how.

        1. Useful as in you can bang out Morse, SSB, or data over it to friends perhaps 2000km away if you have great conditions and pass, but don’t overload the transponder with too much bandwidth(say FM) as without a battery anymore it undervolts and resets.

          1. While I recall talk of experimenting with RTTY through Oscar 7, it wasn’t intended for continuous carriers. Since it was a linear translator, the output stage had to handle all the signals within the bandwidth, was it 100KHz? wide. Stronger than necessary signals would “hog” the system, making it harder for other signals. But also, a continuous carrier used up the output power without information, so FM and AM (with carrier) were at the very least frowned on.
            Nobody much was talking “data” at the time, but unless it was on/off keying, it would have hogged the system too.

            Bandwidth was an issue, because you took space from others, but was secondary to this hogging.

            CW was on/off and SSB only used power as the voice modulated it, leaving power for the other signals t the same time.

            That never changes with linear translators, though solar cells and batteries may have improved to allow more power from the satellites and thus room for continuous carrier modes. I haven’t followed things.

            Of course, some more recent satellites have gone o FM repeater type, but if course they only handle one FM signal at a time.

            Michael

          2. With AO-7 trying to FM now will undervolt the whole satellite and might reset to mode A 10m/2m dumping off all of the mode B 2m/70cm operators who might be using the transponder.
            I am not sure if there is a FM sat in service right now after a good run of them, think they are all either cubesats with a beacon or linear transponders again. But nothing like AO-40 in a por-man’s geostat molinya orbit with several great modes, some using GHz for small mobile antennas and repurposed LNBs, still waiting for it to go zombie after the battery shorted.

          3. Dave, there are still FM sats being launched. Check out fox-1A (AO-85) and there’s more coming.

            Yes it’s only a cubesat. But it’s an FM repeater and works very well.

  2. If you want an old(1974) dead shorted and then opened-short-zombie satellite that you(a licensed amateur) can legally hack with AO-7 is your bird. It normally rotates through 10m/2m and 2m/70cm modes every 24hrs unless undervolted and reset (eclipse or undervolt form too much bandwidth like say FM on the transponder) as it only runs on solar.
    You can work AO-7 with a hacked CB or shortwave set and VHF transciever or a VHF scanner and a UHF transmitter.
    I have been waiting years for AO-40 to go zombie on us since the explosion and then the battery failed, so many cool modes, easy to shlep GHz freq antennas, and a super sweet high apogee molinya orbit, a real poor-mans geostat.
    http://www.amsat.org/?page_id=1031
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/AMSAT-OSCAR_7

    Current Operational State
    AO-7 became non-operational in mid 1981 due to battery failure . In 2002 one of the shorted batteries became an open and now the spacecraft is able to run off solar panels. For this reason it is not usable in eclipse and may not be able to supply enough power to the transmitter to keep from frequency modulating the signal. When continuously illuminated, the mode will alternate between A and B every 24 hours.

    Mode V/A (A) Linear Transponder (Non-Inverting):
    Uplink: 145.8500 – 145.9500 MHz SSB/CW
    Downlink 29.4000 – 29.5000 MHz SSB/CW

    Mode V/A (A) TLM Beacon:
    Downlink 29.5020 MHz CW

    Mode U/V (B) Linear Transponder (Inverting):
    Uplink: 432.1250 – 432.1750 MHz SSB/CW
    Downlink 145.9750 – 145.9250 MHz SSB/CW

    (Note: The 432 MHz uplink on AO-7 was designed before implementation of the 435-438 MHz satellite subband. Operation in the US is currently grandfathered under a waiver from the FCC, included at the bottom of this page.)

    Mode U/V (B) TLM Beacon:
    Downlink 145.9775 MHz CW

    Mode U TLM Beacon
    Downlink 435.1000 MHz CW
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/AMSAT-OSCAR_7

    Find AO-7 here(TLE)
    1 07530U 74089B 16329.86008699 -.00000023 00000-0 13356-3 0 9997
    2 07530 101.5996 296.8363 0012218 0.3069 53.3460 12.53624367923258

      1. I was reading up on AO-40. Apparently there’s a relay that can disconnect the main (failed) battery but it requires too much voltage for them to activate it.
        You’d think the satellites would have better safety measures to at least stay operational in some capacity with a major loss in systems like that. I remember before AO-40 went up and they were fund-raising for it in the mid-90s. It was called Phase 3 back then.

        1. Back then, they probably assumed “if the battery’s dead, the whole machine is dead, don’t spend the weight on a relay because the machine won’t have the power to open it.” That would have been designed before they realized that an uncontrolled, solar-only satellite would still be of some value.

        2. So……

          How do we propose to fix it?

          Needs more volts to kick out dead batt.

          Potential solutions. ..

          i) Increase insolation of solar panels, … reflectively or artificially.
          ii) Increase temperature of sat, such that aux batt has more chemical ooomph.
          iii) Find most resonant mode of onboard receivers and try hitting it with enough watts to increase system voltage.
          iv) All of the above at once.

          i and ii could possibly be achieved by asking someone with a huge laser, like US Navy to shoot it lightly. or something.

          1. I’ll admit, the last line there made me laugh. “Shoot it, but lightly.” Only a little off the top please. http://giphy.com/gifs/aMKUgafs9amha I’m not a satellite guy so I have no idea if any of that would work. If it was me designing these systems, I’d have some way of knocking out the batteries if all else failed. Though the idea of turning it into the worlds largest RFID tag is amusing too. (Hitting an onboard radio with enough watts) There’s the small matter of the power from your radio decreasing the further away something is though.

      2. Sierra Nevada Corp makes an inline battery widget specifically for satellites called the Cell Shorting Device (CSD) that does just that: it passively knocks a cell out of the array upon failure. See page 19 of their current Space Technologies Product Catalog

  3. Not surprising that it still works, besides the batteries. No moisture in space, no AC power surges or lightning, no UV, not necessarily any oxygen either if it’s purged before launch. Granted, random things like transistors do fail but I would think that they have a quality control process to weed out components that test weak from the start. Perhaps not, but it’s something I’d do if spending millions to billions of dollars and a transistor costs a few cents.

    1. Also no modern capacitors that even have the best of them fail.
      Perhaps some scientists should get one of those old devices. like an old TV from Cuba or something, and take a capacitor from that and find out why those used to last.

      Needs to be a scientist completely free from pressure form ‘the industry’ though I imagine.

    1. Interesting to the conspiracy theory, it would be impossible for a dark satellite to remain in a near-polar orbit for 13,000 years because orbiting object are attracted to an equatorial orbit because of the mass distribution of the earth.

      The earth is a bit squished at the poles. You could think of it like floating a coin inside a ring in zero gravity. They naturally attract each other in such a way that they end up on the same plane. The ring is the orbit of the dark satellite, and the coin is the earth – as the system gradually loses potential energy through tidal forces and atmospheric friction, all polar orbits sink into equatorial orbits unless they’re absolutely perfectly perpendicular to the equator.

      Which reveals another problem: The ISS at 400 km high is dropping tens of kilometers a year because of air friction. The dark satellite should have to be very far away to stay up at all, but in the alledged photograph it’s actually in the outer atmosphere. It would need an active propulsion system to stay up for 13 millenia.

      1. I want to watch a few episodes now. :)
        From the wiki:
        “Harry builds a spaceship dubbed Vulture, made completely from reclaimed salvage and powered by a chemical called monohydrazine. The main body of Vulture is composed of a Texaco gasoline semi-trailer tank truck with a cement mixer as the capsule.”

        1. I am old enough that I watched both the Salvage-1 movie that became the pilot and every episode when it was originally broadcast. Even at its weakest it was tremendous fun, and it did not make the mistake of taking itself too seriously. It was also, if you gave it a pass on the impossible fictional monohydrazine super-fuel, much more attentive to real scientific details than most more modern televised SF is. The actual Apollo program had been canceled for only a few years when Salvage-1 was made, the Shuttle program was disappointing in many ways and in crisis, and the series showed a genuine love on the part of its makers for the glory of space exploration.

  4. A half-billion copper needles were just one if the ‘radio wave bounce’ schemes tried in the early days. Echo (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Project_Echo) was similar, but different. A huge aluminized orbital balloon that could be used to bounce high frequency signals from here to there. I remember watching it travel overhead sometime in the early 60’s. I think it was one of the first man-made orbital objects you could actually see from the ground (not that there were many man made objects in orbit at that time).

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