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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.
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