When A Satellite Goes Missing, What Can We Do?


Space is big. Like. Really big. Of the many probes, orbiters, and surveyors
the people of Earth have sent into space to explore our solar system, an uncomfortable
number have been lost. Lost spacecraft make people crazy, engineers
included. We spend millions of dollars to send these
things to a very specific place, how do we just… lose them? What happens if we lose things in space? If they’re millions of miles away and are
far too small to see with telescopes, what do we do? Usually, lost means loss of contact. It doesn’t always mean we don’t know where
something is. Engineers and mathematicians calculate the
trajectory of everything we send into space. But those calculations aren’t perfect (sorry,
y’all), so if a spacecraft stops talking to us at some point, it can drift away from
our calculations… which brings us back to: Space is big. The losses range from the Soviet, Zond 3 which
sent pictures of the far side of the moon for the first time, but was lost on the way
to Mars; to NASA’s infamous Mars Climate Orbiter which got lost because NASA’s teams
mixed up metric and english units; and even a Japanese probe named Akatsuki which was
lost trying to orbit Venus… … but, then it was found again! And being found again is the sweetest in space. The ‘verse is scary for little probes just
trying to get where they’re going. So, when we’re sending spacecraft to Mars,
Pluto, or even just down to the International Space Station, we give them lots of ways to
tell us where they are. The Mars Science Laboratory, that carried
Curiosity to Mars, had multiple antennas to communicate with Earth and other spacecraft
already at Mars that could relay the signals back. The Curiosity rover itself also has multiple
antennas to talk to spacecraft in Mars’ orbit, as well as Earth directly through the
Deep Space Network. Again, Engineers work really hard and design
spacecraft to make sure that if something goes wrong, they still won’t lose it. To you and me, when we hear something is “lost
in space” we probably get a sense of dread (and not just because of the terrible 1998
film). It just seems too daunting a task to find
something that’s LOST IN SPACE. But NASA’s got skillz. And there’s nothing more hype than finding
something you thought was gone forever. For example, Chandrayaan-1, an Indian Space
Research Organization probe currently orbiting the moon, was just found by NASA’s Jet Propulsion
Laboratory! It had been missing since 2009. The ISRO lost contact with it, and they simply
couldn’t find it again, so they ended their mission. But then, JPL shot a large amount of microwaves
at the moon from a dish in California, and picked them up in West Virginia. They analyzed the bounce back, and found ol’
Chandy orbiting 200 kilometers above the moon. Boop. There it was. It once was lost, but now is… well it’s
still lost, actually because they can’t communicate with it, I guess? That’s not typical. These are computer systems, a big part of
the problem is pinpointing their exact location at that point, you just give it a call and
(hopefully, it picks up). This happened in a less gloriously scientific
way with a solar-research sat called STEREO-B — part of a pair: Stereo A and B. The twins
were programmed to fly around the sun and take 3D pictures of mass ejections and flares. Unfortunately, “B” was lost in 2014 when
scientists tested its reset function and it just… never really came back. They knew its orbit, and where it would be,
but couldn’t talk to it because the sun was in the way, and it wasn’t responding
to their hails. Fast-forward two years… scientists were
still tracking where it should be, and kept sending messages its way and eventually, they
got lucky! In 2016, Stereo-B came back online. There was enough charge in its batteries,
and its antenna was pointing in the right direction, so they got a ping back! These computer systems are designed to live
in one of the harshest environments known to man, they can be the size of small SUVs
like Curiosity, or an oven-sized cube like Chandrayaan-1. But space is big, and sometimes things get
lost. If we’re lucky, and keep sending signals,
we hopefully build them smart enough to be found. There are so many stories of satellite rescue,
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