It sounds like the opener to a sci-fi B-movie plot: Scientists find an old, dead satellite from the 1970′s orbiting Earth. Out of interest, they send a command to the chunk of space junk to switch it on, just on the off-chance its circuits are still intact…
However, this is not a fictional account of tinkering with 40-year old technology. A British Ph.D. student really wants to wake up an old satellite, one that hasn’t transmitted since 1996.
The satellite, called Prospero X3, is the only British satellite to have been launched by a British rocket in 1971. To commemorate the 40th anniversary of its launch, Roger Duthie and colleagues from University College London’s Mullard Space Science Laboratory (MSSL) want to reestablish contact with the 66 kilogram silent spacecraft.
Prospero was designed to investigate the orbital space environment and its mission was completed in 1973. However, for another two decades the satellite was contacted annually.
Although the program was canceled before Prospero was launched atop a Black Arrow rocket on Oct. 28, 1971, there has been a resurgence in British interests in space. The nation has an active (and profitable) satellite production industry, but since that single 1971 launch, Britain has depended on other space agencies to get their hardware into space.
But last year, the UK Space Agency was set up to oversee all civil interests in space, so the situation is gradually changing.
Therefore, to signify the 40th anniversary of the only British satellite to have ever been launched by a British rocket will be of huge national interest and pride. Enter Duthie who hopes to ‘talk’ with Prospero’s old circuits. Due to the nature of their work, Duthie and his team call themselves “Astro-archaeologists.”
The task to communicate with this spacecraft is no small one, made even more difficult by the fact that the group who used to communicate with the satellite had been disbanded and communication codes were lost.
“The technical reports made in the 1970s were thought to have been lost,” Duthie told BBC News. “We talked to the people involved in Prospero, searched through dusty boxes in attics and tried the library at [the Royal Aircraft Establishment in Farnborough].”
In a stroke of good fortune, Prospero’s codes were found, typed on a piece of paper in the National Archives at Kew, London.
Although they may have the “key” to the spacecraft, the team need to build custom equipment to transmit a signal and get permission from the UK broadcast regulator Ofcom to use the radio frequency now utilized by other satellites in orbit.
Interestingly, once everything is set up on the ground, and if communication is possible — and that’s a big if, space can be a harsh environment for any electronics, regardless of which century they were built — the researchers may find that some of the scientific payload is still operational.
“It’s an artifact of British engineering; we should find out how it’s performing,” said Duthie.
For more on the UK’s Black Arrow rocket, watch the fascinating documentary, “Once We Had a Rocket”:
Images (from top): A mock-up of the Prospero satellite (Wikipedia Commons), the only Black Arrow launch in 1971 (UKSA).