In 2012, an amateur radio enthusiast pursuing a passion that eats up hours of his spare time found something eerie. His hobby in tracking lost satellites orbiting the Earth gave him the shock of a lifetime that December day. But when he detected the phantom craft with his equipment, he discovered something peculiar about this particular space debris. Perhaps, it was meant to be silent. Somehow, the spooky space junk transmitted a mysterious signal that spooked him from head to toe.
When Phil Williams sat to see if he received any strange signal from lost satellites orbiting Earth, he was shocked when he stumbled upon something mysteriously puzzling. It was an unexpected communication that came from a satellite that pierced through space almost 50 years back. However, it was just another man-made object close to 20,000 other space junkies orbiting our planet. NASA figures that this amounts to approximately 9,000 tons of non-usable space trash. However, Williams was shocked when he learned that the signals came from something the world almost forgot.
The strange communication came from the Lincoln Experimental Satellite 1—commonly known as the LES-1. It belongs to the infinite space trash orbiting the Earth. However, having these junks spinning around in space is packed with risks. For example, an incident from 2008 illustrates it all. That year, some 500 miles above Siberia, a non-functional Russian satellite smashed into an operational American communications satellite. But that's not the end to the space tragedies.
Once a year, the International Space Station takes an evasive action to avoid unruly collision with orbiting space debris. However, there's no doubt the potential threat is ghastly. In 2006, a small piece of space junk crashed into the Space Station. Thankfully, this only chipped a window. But this isn't the first time. In 1996, a piece from the upper stage of a European Ariane rocket ran into Cerise, a French microsatellite. However, LES-1 managed to stay on board for 50 years.
Precisely, LES-1 is one among the many redundant lost satellites orbiting the Earth. However, before 50 years, the satellite served a pivotal purpose. And surprisingly, the phantom satellite's origins are closely connected to the development of nuclear weaponry. In fact, LES-1 was the result of a military initiative just like other advanced technology projects in the bygone epoch.
To understand the roots of the zombie satellite, we need to first uncover a little bit about what happened in 1958. It was the same year the high-altitude nuclear bomb tests were conducted near Johnston Atoll in the Pacific. After the detonation of one of the bombs linked to these experiments, scientists recorded a strange phenomenon. Shockingly, the blast had wiped out the ionosphere above the test site.
The ionosphere is an important layer of the Earth's atmosphere. It sits between 37 and 620 miles above our planet's surface. However, the wide radiation band that was blown up was important too because it packed long-distance communication possibilities of the day. Furthermore, high-frequency radio signals are transmitted by bouncing off the ionosphere. So, without this elemental region, the process doesn't work.
While this communications failure had evident implications for civil aviation, it was also a menacing setting for the military. That's where the Lincoln Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology came into play. Eventually, the ultimatum to initiate Project West Ford took shape. However, the mission also prompted the creation of a system that paved the way for long-distance radio communication. The main idea was that communication didn't depend on the ionosphere to work.
Initially, Project West Ford worked on a system that involved multiple gadgets. These were resonant scatterers that would orbit the planet. Moreover, these gadgets were thought to enable radio communications by generating an artificial ionosphere. This concept was a typical primitive stopgap with around 480 million tiny copper needles acting as antennae. The project was eventually launched in 1963—and illustrated a new chapter for LES-1.
Surprisingly, some of those copper needles remain in orbit even today, contributing to all that space junk. Later, Project West Ford was overthrown by more advanced technology. It was the era where communications satellites replaced the traditional ideas proposed in the project. And the first satellite of its kind for the United States was the LES-1. It was launched by the U.S. Air Force in February 1965.
But launching LES-1 wasn't an easy task. Perhaps, it was the first time something this kind was set to pierce through the atmosphere and into space. The communications satellite stood around five feet tall and weighed approximately 68 pounds. It rocketed into space from Florida's Cape Canaveral base but wasn't alone during its gothic journey. It was aboard the Titan IIIA rocket, which was also an experimental model. So, the two space devices were being tried out simultaneously.
Titan IIIA's first two stages seemed successful. Perhaps, scientists thought that everything worked the way they planned. About five minutes later, the 7,000-pound missile was released into near-Earth orbit. The transtage somersaulted around the planet once—illustrating evident signs of a successful launch. Then, it fired a further burn of around 37 seconds followed by a second one-and-a-half Earth orbits. The rocked flipped over again—as anticipated.
The scientists cheered out loud after Titan IIIA's launch was a complete success. However, it wasn't the same with LES-1. Though the satellite was successfully released from Titan IIIA, things lopsided after that. Following its release from the rocket, LES-1 was supposed to ignite its independent solid-fuel engine. This was precisely something that would put the device into an orbit. But contrary to their beliefs, the researchers saw something else.
LES-1's motor did not start a fire, eventually pushing the satellite on the wrong path. According to the engineers, the engine's faulty electrical circuit could be the cause of the ultimate failure. However, the situation darkened when the malfunctioning engine failed to split from LES-1. This wasn't something the scientists dreamed of ever since the launch was scheduled.
The main villain behind LES-1's inoperable status was credited to its plunging movements. But even that didn't last long. By 1967, the satellite stopped transmitting signals altogether. However, that didn't stop the phantom satellite from making a reappearance with its eerie presence. While its final journey in 1967 should've been the last ever we've heard from LES-1, it wasn't. Meanwhile, the Lincoln Experimental Satellite project continued with other fresh entries.
The Radio Society of Great Britain has it that: Amateur radio is a famed technical hobby and a volunteer public service. It uses designated radio frequencies for non-commercial transmission of messages, emergency communications, and wireless experimentation. Moreover, Williams’ ardent passion for hearing and tracking lost satellite signals paved the way for a historical find that the world might’ve never known.
However, Williams has a specific niche passion in the sphere—the one he calls "radio archeology." It was 2012 when the British man stumbled upon a spooky signal from a satellite that had stopped transmitting for decades. At first, he suspected that he found the phantom LES-1, which was "no more" to the world since it's last spatial whereabouts in 1967. But Williams wasn't sure that it was indeed LES-1. So, he decided to join forces with other hobbyists.
You see, the British radio enthusiast is also a member of a group called HearSat. The group's members carefully listen out for unknown radio signals from space, just like Williams. That's when fellow HearSat members from Germany and Brazil confirmed that Williams had indeed heard the phantom signals from the LES-1 satellite. Eventually, expert confirmation of the matter arrived in 2016.
According to Vintage News, Williams stands by his point that the repeated signal that spans on a four-second-long loop was caused by a system failure. Moreover, this malfunction could also be the reason why LES-1 started to transmit again after decades of silence. Williams also believes that the satellite is transmitting in this strange pattern as it can do so only when it catches the sun's rays through its solar panels. The signal is interrupted when the solar rays fall into shadow.
Surprisingly, the good news is that the 50-year-old space junk poses no threat to us Earthlings. Currently, LES-1's orbit is quite high above Earth's surface and it will be many years before the phantom satellite falls back into the planet. The lost satellite's discovery still astonishes Williams, who isn't ready to buy into the alien conspiracy theories. However, he's still stunned that the circuitry system inside LES-1 is still capable of functioning at any level. All this despite being stuck in an eerie environment for over five decades!
Sometimes, it's hard to put the finger on something when it shows up after it's deemed lost and unusable for decades. In Williams' case, LES-1 shows the world that it's still capable of operating despite giving into strange circumstances man can never reach. But we only hope that when the phantom satellite returns, it lands somewhere safe! Have you tried tracking spooky satellite signals like this? If not, are you going to try something like Phil Williams anytime soon? Tell us more about your hobby! And please don't forget to share this article!