Space Age Road Rage: Right Of Way Above The Karman Line

On a dark night in 2006 I was bicycle commuting to my office, oblivious to the countless man made objects orbiting in the sky above me at thousands of miles per hour. My attention was instead focused on a northbound car speeding through a freeway underpass at dozens of miles per hour, oblivious to my southbound headlamp. The car swerved into the left turn lane to get to the freeway on-ramp. The problem? I was only a few feet from crossing the entrance to that very on-ramp! As the car rushed through their left turn I was presented with a split second decision: slow, and possibly stop in the middle of the on-ramp, or just go for it and hope for the best.

A graphic depicting a dawdling bicycle rider about to be in the way of a speeding car driver
In Blue: Terrified cyclist. In Red: A speeding car careening around a corner without slowing down.

By law I had the right of way. But this was no time to start discussing right of way with the driver of the vehicle that threatened to turn me into a dark spot on the road. I followed my gut instinct, and my legs burned in compliance as I sped across that on-ramp entrance with all my might. The oncoming car missed my rear wheel by mere feet! What could have ended in disaster and possibly even death had resulted in a near miss.

Terrestrial vehicles generally have laws and regulations that specify and enforce proper behavior. I had every right to expect the oncoming car be observant of their surroundings or to at least slow to a normal speed before making that turn. In contrast, traffic control in Earth orbit conjures up thoughts of bargain-crazed shoppers packed into a big box store on Black Friday.

So is spacecraft traffic in orbit really a free-for-all? If there were stringent rules, how can they be enforced? Before we explore the answers to those questions, let’s examine the problem we’re here to discuss: stuff in space running into other stuff in space.

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Is This The Oldest Still-Working Geostationary Satellite?

The LES-5 spacecraft
The LES-5 spacecraft

Regular followers of space news will know that when satellites or space probes reach the end of their life, they either are de-orbited in a fiery re-entry, or they stay lifeless in orbit, often in a safe graveyard orbit where they are unlikely to harm other craft. Sometimes these deactivated satellites spring back into life, and there is a dedicated band of enthusiasts who seek out these oddities. Dead satellite finder extraordinaire [Scott Tilley] has turned up a particularly unusual one, a craft that is quite likely to be the oldest still-working geostationary satellite.

LES-5 is an experimental satellite built by MIT’s Lincoln Labs, launched in 1967, and used to test military UHF communications in a geosynchronous orbit. It had an active life into the early 1970s after which it was placed in a graveyard orbital slot for redundant craft. It’s lain forgotten ever since, until this month when [Scott]  found its beacon transmitting on 236.75 MHz. The Twitter thread is an extremely interesting glimpse into the satellite finder’s art, as first he’s not certain at all that it is LES-5 so he waits for its solar eclipse to identify its exact position.

Whether anything on the craft can find another use today is not certain, as he finds no evidence of its transponder. Still, that something is working again 53 years after its launch is a testament to the quality of its construction. Should its transponder be reactivated again it’s not impossible that people might find illicit uses for it, after all that’s not the first time this has happened.

Returning A Lost Sheep To The NASA Fold

About three weeks ago, we reported that a satellite enthusiast in Canada found an unexpected signal among his listening data. It was a satellite, and upon investigation it turned out to be NASA’s IMAGE satellite, presumed dead since a power failure in 2005 interrupted its mission to survey the Earth’s magnetosphere.

This story is old news then, they’ve found IMAGE, now move on. And indeed the initial excitement is past, and you might expect that to be it from the news cycle perspective. But this isn’t the Daily Mail, it’s Hackaday. And because we are interested in the details of stories like these it’s a fascinating read to take a look at NASA’s detailed timeline of the satellite’s discovery and subsequent recovery.

In it we read about the detective work that went into not simply identifying the probable source of the signals, but verifying that it was indeed IMAGE. Then we follow the various NASA personnel as they track the craft and receive telemetry from it. It seems they have a fully functional spacecraft with a fully charged battery reporting for duty, the lost sheep has well and truly returned to the fold!

At the time of writing they are preparing to issue commands to the craft, so with luck by the time you read this they will have resumed full control of it and there will be fresh exciting installments of the saga. Meanwhile you can read our report of the discovery here, and read about a previous satellite brought back from the dead.

Picture of IMAGE satellite: NASA public domain.

Hack Space Debris At Your Peril

Who has dibs on space debris? If getting to it were a solved problem, it sure would be fun to use dead orbital hardware as something of a hacker’s junk bin. Turns out there is some precedent for this, and regulations already in place in the international community.

To get you into the right frame of mind: it’s once again 2100 AD and hackers are living in mile-long space habitats in the Earth-Moon system. But from where do those hackers get their raw material, their hardware? The system abounds with space debris, defunct satellites from a century of technological progress. According to Earth maritime law, if space is to be treated like international waters then the right of salvage would permit them to take parts from any derelict. But is space like international waters? Or would hacking space debris result in doing hard time in the ice mines of Ceres?

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Software Update Destroys $286 Million Japanese Satellite

The Japanese X-ray telescope Hitomi has been declared lost after it disintegrated in orbit, torn apart when spinning out of control. The cause is still under investigation but early analysis points to bad data in a software package pushed shortly after an instrument probe was extended from the rear of the satellite. JAXA, the Japanese space agency, lost $286 million, three years of planned observations, and a possible additional 10 years of science research.

Hitomi, also known as ASTRO-H, successfully launched on February 17, 2016 but on March 26th catastrophe struck, leaving only pieces floating in space. JAXA, desperately worked to recover the satellite not knowing the extent of the failure. On April 28th they discontinued their efforts and are now working to determine the reasons for the failure, although a few weeks ago they did provide an analysis of the failure sequence at a press conference.

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SDR: Satellite Death Receiver

Halloween may be over, but [happysat] has found a way to listen to the dead. Satellites, that is, specifically those in the 136-138 MHz and 150-400 MHz ranges. He’s using an RTL-SDR dongle and a QFH antenna to detect the death throes of decommissioned navigation and space research satellites.

[happysat] was listening to NOAA/Meteor on the 137MHz band when he made this discovery. When a satellite is near end of life, the last bit of fuel is used to push it into graveyard orbit. This doesn’t always work, however, and when the light is just right, a chemical reaction makes the long-dead batteries conduct and these satellites in purgatory transmit once more.

They’re not sending out anything proprietary useful, just unmodulated carrier that sometimes interferes with currently operational satellites on the 136-138 MHz band. [happysat] captured some audio from two of the oldest satellites that are still broadcasting, and links to a TLE set of dead satellites he created. Check out his frequency database for SDR# as well. Don’t have a weather satellite-capable antenna? Build one!

[via /r/RTLSDR]