Category Archives: Satellite Watching

Amateur sky watcher finds a long silent NASA science satellite talking again

Scott Tilley, an “amateur visual and radio astronomer”, recently discovered that a NASA science satellite that went silent in 2005 had begun transmitting again: Amateur astronomer discovers a revived NASA satellite | Science/AAAS

The astronomer, Scott Tilley, spends his free time following the radio signals from spy satellites. On this occasion, he was searching in high-Earth orbit for evidence of Zuma, a classified U.S. satellite that’s believed to have failed after launch. But rather than discovering Zuma, Tilley picked up a signal from a satellite labeled “2000-017A,” which he knew corresponded to NASA’s IMAGE satellite. Launched in 2000 and then left for dead in December 2005, the $150 million mission was back broadcasting. It just needed someone to listen.

Scientists who had worked previously on the IMAGE ( Imager for Magnetopause-to-Aurora Global Exploration) project are hoping to resume their studies with the satellite, which had been quite productive:

Prior to its failure, IMAGE was already considered a successful mission. The half-ton satellite’s instruments served as a sort of telescope, providing a global view of charged particles captured in Earth’s magnetic field. IMAGE’s instruments captured energetic neutral particles ejected by collisions of atoms in the inner magnetosphere, creating a broad-scale picture of that region and its interactions with the sun. It’s a capability that has never been replaced, Reiff says. “It is really invaluable for now-casting space weather and really understanding the global response of the magnetosphere to solar storms.”

During its extended mission, however, IMAGE’s signal winked out just before Christmas in 2005. The mission had been working perfectly up to that point; NASA eventually attributed the loss to a misfire of the controller providing power to the satellite’s transponder. It remained possible, however, that IMAGE could reset itself during points in its orbit when Earth eclipsed its solar panels for an extended time, draining its batteries. Such eclipses occurred last year—and 5 years ago—perhaps triggering its rebirth.

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Catch sight of “The Humanity Star” while it is in orbit

The Electron rocket launched last weekend from New Zealand by Rocket Lab had an unannounced payload aboard in addition to three small commercial spacecraft.  The Humanity Star is a

a bright, blinking satellite now orbiting Earth, visible to the naked eye in the night sky. Launched on #StillTesting, The Humanity Star is designed to encourage everyone to look up and consider our place in the universe. 

More about the project:

Visible from space with the naked eye, the Humanity Star is a highly reflective satellite that blinks brightly across the night sky to create a shared experience for everyone on the planet.

Created by Rocket Lab founder and CEO Peter Beck, the Humanity Star is a geodesic sphere made from carbon fibre with 65 highly reflective panels. It spins rapidly, reflecting the sun’s rays back to Earth, creating a flashing light that can be seen against a backdrop of stars.

Orbiting the Earth every 90 minutes and visible from anywhere on the globe, the Humanity Star is designed to be a bright symbol and reminder to all on Earth about our fragile place in the universe.

The sphere will stay in orbit for about 9 months. You can use the tracking app on the website to find when it will pass over your location.


Russian student satellite will shine bright in the night sky

A Russian student satellite was recently launched (along with 72 other satellites) into low earth orbit (LEO). Mayak is Russia’s first crowdfunded satellite project. The primary goal is to demonstrate that a small satellite can be de-orbited passively by deploying a large form that greatly increases the drag of the spacecraft as it passes through the extremely thin upper atmosphere in LEO.

Mayak, which is about the size of a loaf of bread (10cm x 10cm x 34 cm),  will inflate a tetrahedron-shaped form covered in reflective sheets. This will not only increase its drag but will also make it very bright in the night sky: Almost as Bright as the Moon? New Satellite Might Light Up the Sky – Sky & Telescope.

Each surface is four square meters on a side and should be readily visible from the ground on a twilight pass. In fact, the team claims, Mayak will be the “brightest shooting star” once unfurled, almost as bright as the full Moon at magnitude –10. Mayak could be visible in bright twilight and perhaps even during daytime passes as well.

The satellite tracking website Heavens-Above has created a Mayak tracking tool that will tell you when Mayak will pass over your location.

The plan is to fly Mayak in a stabilized mode for the first four weeks, then set it tumbling on all three axes, setting off a brilliant twinkling pattern. The team’s site mentions using brightness estimations from Mayak to gather information about air density at high altitude and to calibrate brightness estimations for future satellites.

The reflector will also speed up reentry once deployed, utilizing both solar wind pressure and atmospheric drag. Such devices may become a standard feature on future satellites, enabling them to de-orbit shortly after their mission ends rather than adding to the growing tally of space junk in low-Earth orbit. Nanosail-D2 tested a similar technology in 2011, and another mission recently dispatched from the International Space Station, InflateSail, is currently testing the same method.

The University of Toronto’s CanX-7  satellite, launched last September, deployed a drag sail in May and it quickly demonstrated its de-orbiting effect.

Here is a video of the launch of the Soyuz rocket that  put the 73 satellites into orbit:



Amateur satellite observers can spot a spysat

Spysats can’t hide from determined amateur spacecraft trackers: Backyard Detectives Out-Spy the Spies Orbiting Above – WIRED 

Even spy satellites can’t hide from a civilian with a pair of binoculars and a lot of free time. “It’s hard to hide something that you can see in the sky,” says John Magliacane, an amateur radio operator and satellite tracker in New Jersey. Just like the moon, satellites reflect sunlight back to Earth. Magliacane is a satellite tracker, but not one of the smaller sub-group that tracks spy satellites. However, he did end up doing some similar stuff during the era of space shuttle launches, upon which the military would occasionally piggyback payloads. “Some people would try to figure out the orbital parameters based on the time of launch and information from previous missions,” he says.

The orbital characteristics tell you more than just where a satellite is: It can tell you what it does. For most satellites, this data is public, and published (among other places) on a website called CelesTrak. The goods for each probe is a set of numbers called the two-line element. These are coordinates and time codes noting important things like the satellite’s apogee, perigee, time it passed certain latitudes and longitude, how many times it orbits Earth in a day, and so on and so forth.

More about satellite observations in the HobbySpace Satellite Watching section.