CQ CQ CQ – Ham Radio Saturday: Ham radio operator finds “zombie satellite”

This is rather cool, from NPR:

Long-Lost U.S. Military Satellite Found By Amateur Radio Operator

There are more than 2,000 active satellites orbiting Earth. At the end of their useful lives, many will simply burn up as they reenter the atmosphere. But some will continue circling as “zombie” satellites — neither alive nor quite dead.

“Most zombie satellites are satellites that are no longer under human control, or have failed to some degree,” says Scott Tilley.

Tilley, an amateur radio operator living in Canada, has a passion for hunting them down.

In 2018, he found a signal from a NASA probe called IMAGE that the space agency had lost track of in 2005. With Tilley’s help, NASA was able to reestablish contact.

But he has tracked down zombies even older than IMAGE.

“The oldest one I’ve seen is Transit 5B-5. And it launched in 1965,” he says, referring to a nuclear-powered U.S. Navy navigation satellite that still circles the Earth in a polar orbit, long forgotten by all but a few amateurs interested in hearing it “sing” as it passes overhead.

Recently, Tilley got interested in a communications satellite he thought might still be alive — or at least among the living dead. LES-5, built by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Lincoln Laboratory, was launched in 1967.

Tilley was inspired by 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 scouring the Internet, he found a paper describing the radio frequency that LES-5, an experimental military UHF communications satellite, should be operating on — if it was still alive. So he decided to have a look.

“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,” he says.

“When you have a family and a busy business, you don’t really have a lot of time for that,” he says.

But then came the COVID-19 pandemic.

Scott Tilley
Well folks, here’s what appears to be a new ZOMBIE SAT!

LES-5 [2866, 1967-066E] in a GEO graveyard orbit.

Confirmation will occur at ~0445 UTC this evening when the satellite should pass through eclipse.

If so this is definitely the oldest emitting GEOsat I know of.

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.

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.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
This entry was posted in Ham Radio, Just Too Cool, SESSIUNCULA. Bookmark the permalink.


  1. Aman4allseasons says:

    It is always neat to see this kind of stuff. I’ll have to see if he checks into any of the local nets. His call is VE7TIL.


  2. Sportsfan says:

    What could the satellite be commanded to do?
    Turn left?

  3. JustaSinner says:

    Where are all the Q Anon and 4Chan hackers? Be the first to command your own satellite! How cool would that be? Some additional code installed with security authentication, voila, secure sat-link data! Almost exciting as paper computers!

  4. Semper Gumby says:

    Cool post Fr. Z.

    Sportsfan: *chuckle*

    As it turns out, it might have to. Here’s Gen. Raymond of Space Force yesterday on the recent Iranian launch:

    “Iran states it has imaging capabilities—actually, it’s a tumbling webcam in space; unlikely providing intel. #spaceishard”

    Interesting comments to the General’s tweet.


  5. veritas vincit says:

    No doubt LES-5 was classified when it was launched. And the contractor (in this case, MIT) that designed it is not in a position to declassify information. (I know, I used to work as a government contractor on classified contracts).

    If the ham operator were able to find out which DoD office originally was involved, they might be able to declassify and release the information. (Or not — the government has always been quick to classify and slow to declassify — even for 50 year old Cold War satellites).

  6. Semper Gumby says:

    JustaSinner: That would be cool. A good use of a personal satellite would be to blast the Angelus bells on all frequencies.

    I don’t think these folks would mind too much…


  7. MWindsor says:

    Given the situation the world is now in, maybe it’s time to look at an HF Zed Net again? I know about the digital thing that’s been setup, but that might be problematic if things go really sour in the next year or so. Maybe a Zed Net Traffic System? Practice CW between Zed Net stations? I dunno.

    All I can say is that, in addition to cleaning and oiling all of my firearms recently, I’ve also gotten all the radio gear in tip top condition as well.

    –… …–
    -.. .
    -.- – ….. .– -..-
    –.- .-. –

  8. JonPatrick says:

    An HF ZedNet sounds good. In a few weeks I should have an end fed half wave put up good for 40 through 10 meters. Parts on order from a reputable US made supplier (no more stuff from China at this QTH).
    73 de KC1EFW

  9. JonPatrick says:

    I forgot to mention I am also working on learning CW, it’s a slow slog. I am using the Koch method where you start at a fairly fast speed but with just 2 letters and add more letters as your proficiency increases, Still stuck at 2 letters but will keep practicing.

    [Thanks for the nudge.]

  10. Mark W says:

    JonPatrick – which antenna did you get? I’m in the market for one myself.

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