Long-Lost U.S. Military Satellite Found By Amateur Radio Operator

Apr 24, 2020
Originally published on April 24, 2020 5:03 pm

There are more than 2,000 active satellites orbiting Earth. At the end of their useful lives, many will simply burn up as they reenter the atmosphere. But some will continue circling as "zombie" satellites — neither alive nor quite dead.

"Most zombie satellites are satellites that are no longer under human control, or have failed to some degree," says Scott Tilley.

Tilley, an amateur radio operator living in Canada, has a passion for hunting them down.

In 2018, he found a signal from a NASA probe called IMAGE that the space agency had lost track of in 2005. With Tilley's help, NASA was able to reestablish contact.

But he has tracked down zombies even older than IMAGE.

"The oldest one I've seen is Transit 5B-5. And it launched in 1965," he says, referring to a nuclear-powered U.S. Navy navigation satellite that still circles the Earth in a polar orbit, long forgotten by all but a few amateurs interested in hearing it "sing" as it passes overhead.

Recently, Tilley got interested in a communications satellite he thought might still be alive — or at least among the living dead. LES-5, built by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Lincoln Laboratory, was launched in 1967.

Tilley was inspired by another amateur who in 2016 had found LES-1, an earlier satellite built by the same lab. What was intriguing to him about LES-5 was that if it was still working, it might be the oldest functioning satellite still in geostationary orbit.

By scouring the Internet, he found a paper describing the radio frequency that LES-5, an experimental military UHF communications satellite, should be operating on — if it was still alive. So he decided to have a look.

"This required the building of an antenna, erecting a new structure to support it. Pre-amps, filters, stuff that takes time to gather and put all together," he says.

"When you have a family and a busy business, you don't really have a lot of time for that," he says.

But then came the COVID-19 pandemic.

British Columbia, where Tilley lives, was on lockdown. Like many of us, suddenly Tilley had time on his hands. He used it to look for LES-5, and on March 24, he hit the ham radio equivalent of pay dirt.

He's been making additional measurements ever since.

"The reason this one is kind of intriguing is its telemetry beacon is still operating," Tilley says.

In other words, says Tilley, even though the satellite was supposed to shut down in 1972, it's still going. As long as the solar panels are in the sun, the satellite's radio continues to operate. Tilley thinks it may even be possible to send commands to the satellite.

The MIT lab that built LES-5 still does a lot of work on classified projects for the military. NPR contacted its news office to ask if someone could say more about LES-5 and whether it really could still receive commands.

But after repeated requests, Lincoln Laboratory finally answered with a "no comment."

It seems that even a 50-year-old zombie satellite might still have secrets.

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

There are more than 2,000 operating satellites orbiting the earth. There are a number more that are no longer considered operational but are still, in some sense, alive and doing who knows what. NPR's Joe Palca has a story about the discovery of one of these so-called zombie satellites.

JOE PALCA, BYLINE: Scott Tilley has a passion for hunting down zombie satellites. This is how he describes them.

SCOTT TILLEY: Most zombie satellites are satellites that are no longer under human control or have failed to some degree.

PALCA: Tilley is an amateur radio operator. A couple of years ago, he found a signal from a NASA probe called IMAGE that the space agency had lost track of in 2005. With Tilley's help, NASA was able to reestablish contact. Tilley has tracked down zombies even older than IMAGE.

TILLEY: The oldest one I've seen is Transit 5B-5, and it was launched in 1964.

PALCA: Recently, Tilley got interested in a communications satellite he thought might still be alive called LES-5. It was launched in 1967. By scouring the web, he found a paper describing the radio frequency LES-5 was operating on. So he decided to have a look.

TILLEY: This required the building of an antenna, erecting a new structure to support it, preamps, filters, stuff that takes time to gather and put all together. And when you have a family and a busy business, you know, you don't really have a lot of time for that.

PALCA: But COVID-19 gave him the time because British Columbia, where he lives, is also observing stay-at-home restrictions. On March 24, he found LES-5, and he's been making additional measurements ever since.

TILLEY: The reason this one is kind of intriguing is its telemetry beacon is operating.

PALCA: In other words, even though Tilley says the satellite was supposed to shut down in 1972, it's still going. As long as the solar panels are in the sun, the satellite's radio continues to operate. Tilley thinks it may even be possible to send the satellite commands.

LES-5 was built by Lincoln Laboratory in Massachusetts. I contacted the lab's news office to ask if I could speak to someone who could say more about LES-5, what it was doing and whether it really could be sent commands. I thought they'd be thrilled to learn their aging satellite was still functional, but after repeated requests, the lab finally said no comment. Lincoln Laboratory does a lot of contract work on secret stuff for the military. So a 50-year-old satellite that may still have secrets - an intriguing zombie indeed.

Joe Palca, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF FRITZ VON RUNTE'S "A SPACE ODDITY (INSTRUMENTAL MIX)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.