An abandoned satellite just started transmitting for the first time in 46 years
On February 11, 1965, a satellite designated LES1 launched from Cape Canaveral. Designed and built by Lincoln Laboratories at MIT, it was sent into orbit with the purpose of helping test techniques for satellite communication. It malfunctioned and stopped transmitting in 1967 before ever reaching its mission destination, and it has spent decades spinning out of control.
And yet somehow it just started transmitting again.
The transmission was first discovered in 2013 by an amateur British astronomer named Phil Williams. It took three years to confirm the “ghostly sound,” which helped to spark plenty of conspiracy theories, including the calls of aliens and secret government projects in space.
And while those are probably more than a little ridiculous, scientists don’t yet have a better explanation for why the satellite suddenly started transmitting after 46 years of silence.
LES1 was originally designed to operate for several years, but two years after it reached orbit a malfunction ended the signal and sent the satellite spinning end over end. The satellite spins constantly, exposing the solar panels for just four seconds at a time – explaining why the signal fluctuates as the panels gain just enough energy to send off a burst that exhausts its reserves, then repeats the process.
The transmitter is broadcasting on 237MHz. The common consensus is that some new malfunction caused the satellite to begin transmitting again, but it’s not clear what. The batteries are believed to have disintegrated long ago, which may have freed up something else that could receive power.
The satellite is roughly the size of a small car and is packed with technology that was physically much larger than its current counterparts. Depending on the nature of the malfunction, the satellite may continue to transmit for months or years. The technology isn’t that different from some of the early probes sent to the edges of the solar system and beyond, many of which are still working well.
The tech may be obsolete, but it shows a reliability that could keep LES1 operating for a while. At least until gravity finally wins and sends the satellite crashing back to Earth, where it will burn up on re-entry, taking its mysterious malfunction with it.