Curious Case Of The Long-Lost U.S Zombie Satellite LES-5 Discovered By Amateur Radio Operator

Don Wood – – In orbit around the Earth there are more than 2,000 active satellites. Zombie satellites are neither alive nor quite dead, and they are no longer under human control due to an extended malfunction. It’s unknown how many zombie satellites are out there, but one of them has just been found.

A long-lost U.S. military zombie satellite has been located by amateur radio operator, Scott Tilley, who lives in Canada.

Curious Case Of The Long-Lost U.S Zombie Satellite LES-5 Discovered By Amateur Radio Operator

Credit: Public Domain

Known under the name, LES-5, the satellite was built by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Lincoln Laboratory and launched in 1967. LES-5 was meant to stop operating in 1972, but the satellite is still operational in 2020. As long as its solar panels are in the Sun, the satellite’s radio keeps working.

Tilley who has a passion for hunting down satellites became interested in LES-5 after hearing about 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 searching the Internet, he came across a paper describing the radio frequency that LES-5, an experimental military UHF communications satellite, should be operating on — if it was still alive. Naturally, he decided to investigate the case further.

“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,” Tilley says.

Such projects can be time demanding and difficult when you have a business and family, but the coronavirus pandemic led to a lockdown of British Columbia where Tilley lives. Suddenly he had all the time he needed to start searching for the zombie satellite.

As NPR reports, Tilley “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.

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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.”

Written by Don Wood – Staff