It’s 2012, and Phil Williams is pursuing the passion that eats up hours of his time. Williams is an amateur radio enthusiast who specializes in tracking old satellites lost in orbit around Earth, and on that December day, the Englishman manages to detect just such a craft with his equipment. But there’s something odd about this piece of space debris. Although it should be silent, somehow it’s transmitting an eerie, otherworldly signal.
This unexpected communication came from the Lincoln Experimental Satellite 1 – more commonly known as LES-1. And LES-1 is just one of close to 20,000 man-made objects perpetually orbiting our planet, according to figures released by the U.S. Space Surveillance Network in 2019. NASA reckons, moreover, that this amounts to around 9,000 tons of space trash.
And having all this stuff spinning around in space is not without risks, as an incident from 2009 has illustrated. In that year, some 500 miles above Siberia, a non-operational Russian satellite smashed into a working American communications satellite at a speed of more than 22,000 mph.
Around once a year, the International Space Station also has to take evasive action to avoid a possible collision with orbiting debris. And there’s no doubt the potential threat is real. In 2006, for example, a small piece of debris crashed into the Space Station – although this thankfully only chipped a window.
In fact, LES-1 is just one of many redundant spacecraft circling the Earth. Once, though, the satellite served an important purpose. And, interestingly enough, its origins are closely linked to the development of nuclear weaponry. Yes, like so many advanced technology projects, LES-1 was the product of a military initiative.
To uncover the roots of LES-1, however, we need to first go back to the 1958 high-altitude nuclear bomb tests near Johnston Atoll in the Pacific. And after the detonation of the first of the two bombs involved in these experiments, scientists recorded a curious phenomenon. Specifically, the blast had completely wiped out the ionosphere in a large area above the test site.
The ionosphere is the layer of Earth’s atmosphere that sits between 37 and 620 miles above the planet’s surface. This wide band was important, too, when it came to the long-distance communications capabilities of the day. You see, high-frequency radio transmissions travel by actually bouncing off the ionosphere; without this region, then, the process simply doesn’t work.
And while this potential communications failure had obvious implications for civil aviation, it was also an ominous scenario for the military. So, the Lincoln Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology initiated Project West Ford. Essentially, the mission entailed the creation of a system of long-distance radio communication that did not depend on the ionosphere to work.
At first, Project West Ford worked on a system of multiple gadgets called resonant scatterers that would orbit the Earth. These would then enable radio communications by creating a kind of artificial ionosphere. And this somewhat primitive stopgap – basically, 480 million tiny copper needles acting as antennae – was subsequently launched into orbit in 1963.
Some of those needles remain in orbit today, contributing to the space junk problem. Then, in time, Project West Ford was superseded by more advanced technology in the shape of communication satellites. And the first of these for the United States was LES-1, which was launched by the U.S. Air Force in February 1965.
LES-1 – which stood at about five feet tall and weighed in at around 68 pounds – was sent into space from Florida’s Cape Canaveral base aboard a Titan IIIA rocket. Like LES-1, the Titan rocket was an experimental model, and so the two devices were being tried out at the same time.
LES-1’s power supply came in the shape of 2,376 solar cells, while its radio communication equipment included a solid-state transmitter as well as an array of aerials. And while the satellite was in orbit, researchers at Westford, Massachusetts, and Pleasanton, California, would conduct experiments on its communication capabilities.
The Titan IIIA system, meanwhile, was being used in order to test the upper stage of its three-tier structure, as engineers were planning to use this section, called the transtage, on another rocket called Titan IIIC. Titan IIIA’s first launch had come in September 1964, and it was utilized on three further occasions before it was retired.
Unfortunately, Titan IIIA had a technical failure soon after its maiden flight and failed to reach orbiting altitude. But the second launch thankfully went to plan, leading to Titan IIIA’s third blast-off – this time while carrying LES-1. And on its third outing, the rocket shot up into space without mishap.
The first two stages of Titan IIIA launched the rocket into the sky, and after five minutes of flight the 7,000-pound missile was sent into near-Earth orbit. Then, after circling our planet once, the transtage somersaulted as planned before firing a further burn of 37 seconds. And following another one-and-a-half Earth orbits, the rocket flipped over a second time – again as anticipated.
After its second orbiting somersault, Titan IIIA made its third and final ignition and then parted company with its two items of payload: LES-1 and a 1,000-pound hunk of metal. The metal lump had been included simply to show that the transtage could carry two separate loads, and the successful launch and flight showed that this was indeed possible.
So, Titan IIIA’s journey was a complete success. Sadly, though, this was more than could be said for LES-1. Yes, while the satellite was indeed successfully ejected from the rocket, things went quickly awry after that. Following its ejection from Titan IIIA, LES-1 was supposed to fire its own independent solid fuel engine. This would have then put the device into an orbit with a maximum altitude of 11,500 miles and a minimum of 1,725 miles.
But the motor did not ignite, leaving LES-1 on the wrong trajectory. As best as the engineers could tell, a fault in the electrical circuit of the engine had been the cause of this failure. And the situation worsened further when the malfunctioning engine failed to separate from the satellite as it had been designed to do.
As LES-1 left its booster rocket behind, it was spinning at a rate of three turns per second. With the on-board rocket still attached, though, the satellite went into a random rotation. And although the scientists were able to communicate with LES-1, thus establishing that some of its equipment – including its antenna system – was indeed working correctly, the satellite was sadly now unusable.
So LES-1’s plunging movements rendered it inoperable, and by 1967 it had stopped sending signals altogether. But while that should have been the last we ever heard from LES-1, it wasn’t. And in the meantime, the Lincoln Experimental Satellite project continued apace.
As a matter of fact, LES-1 was just the first of what would eventually be nine satellites launched by the Lincoln program. Following that first experimental launch in 1965, the series continued with U.S. Air Force funding until 1976. And as you may have suspected, the satellites were numbered LES-1 through to LES-9.
LES-2 – which was almost identical to LES-1 – successfully reached its orbit, meaning researchers were able to carry out a series of experiments. When LES-3 and LES-4 were launched together in December 1965, however, their booster rocket functioned only partially. Yet while the satellites didn’t ultimately go into the intended orbit, they still managed to supply scientists with useful information.
LES-5 and LES-6 were successful in their missions, too, although the lack of money for the program meant that there was no LES-7 to follow. Then, finally, there was a revival with the launch of LES-8 and LES-9, which were simultaneously sent up into the sky in March 1976.
All of these missions took place more than 40 years ago, of course, making what Williams heard all the more surprising. The amateur radio enthusiast is just one of many U.K. fans of the hobby, which also has plenty of followers in the States. In fact, there are national associations in both countries for so-called “ham radio.”
What’s more, in order to be a ham radio operator in either the U.S. or the U.K., you need to be both trained and licensed. But what exactly are these enthusiasts doing? Well, the Radio Society of Great Britain offers a useful definition of ham radio that explains, “Amateur radio is a popular technical hobby and volunteer public service that uses designated radio frequencies for the non-commercial exchange of messages, wireless experimentation, self-training and emergency communications.”
But Williams has a particular niche interest in the sphere – one that he describes as “radio archaeology.” And back in 2012, the British man was at his home near the Cornish town of Bude in south-west England when he stumbled across a signal from a strange satellite that had reportedly stopped transmitting completely.
At first, Williams suspected that he’d found the long-lost LES-1, which had supposedly been dead to the world since 1967. And while he wasn’t absolutely sure of this fact, he would eventually receive a helping hand from other hobbyists. You see, Williams is a member of a group called HearSat whose members listen out for radio signals from space. So, fellow HearSat enthusiasts from Brazil and Germany judged for themselves that Williams had indeed tracked down the LES-1 satellite. Expert confirmation of this also arrived in 2016.
And perhaps the most striking aspect of this signal was how weird it sounded – a bizarrely modulated whistling noise with strangely discordant notes. If you stretched your imagination a little, in fact, you could almost conceive of the din as being some kind of peculiar message from outer space.
In 2016 British tabloid The Sun reported that some even believed aliens had seized control of the aging satellite and broadcast a radio message to Earth. Williams took a more common-sense view, however, and he had a ready explanation for the strange-sounding signal.
According to website The Vintage News, Williams believes that the signal, which repeats on a four-second-long loop, was caused by a component failure. Apparently, this malfunction may also be the reason why the satellite had started transmitting again after decades of silence.
Furthermore, although LES-1 is broadcasting on a wavelength of 237 megahertz, the signal is only intermittent during those four-second cycles. Williams thinks, then, that the satellite is transmitting in this unusual manner as it can only do so when it rotates and catches the sun’s rays through its numerous solar panels. And as the solar array falls into shadow, the signal is therefore interrupted.
Williams further said of this phenomenon, “Tension in the solar panels jumps, and [so] it can do the phantom signal.” And while speaking to the Amateur Radio – PEØSAT website, Williams explained how the satellite’s rotation creates the bizarre sounds. He said, “This [process] gives the signal a particularly ghostly sound as the voltage from the solar panels fluctuates.”
Anyway, the good news is that, as far as we know, this piece of space junk poses no threat to us Earthlings. At present, LES-1’s orbit is still quite high above the planet’s surface, meaning it will be many years before the satellite falls back to Earth. Nonetheless, what emerged in 2012 still manages to astonish Williams.
Indeed, while the enthusiast may not buy into the alien conspiracy theories, he is still amazed that the electronics inside LES-1 are still capable of working at any level. And this is the case despite the satellite having been stuck in the inhospitable environment of space for more than five decades.
More incredibly still, in 2020 another one of the Lincoln Experimental Satellites, LES-5, was discovered by ham radio enthusiast Scott Tilley. Appropriately, Tilley, who is based in British Colombia, Canada, said that his search for LES-5 was inspired by Williams’ discovery of LES-1.
LES-5 was launched in July 1967, with researchers terminating its operation in 1971 after a range of communications experiments had been carried out. And by all rights, that should have been the last anyone ever heard from the satellite. After LES-5 was deactivated, you see, it became simply another piece of mute space junk circling the Earth.
But against the odds, Tilley tracked LES-5 down in March 2020. Speaking to NPR the following month, he pointed out, “Most zombie satellites are satellites that are no longer under human control or have failed to some degree.” So, after the example set by Williams’ discovery, Tilley decided that it was worth searching for LES-5 – and his efforts paid off.
And in a 2018 interview with NASA, Tilley explained his passion for space, saying, “I took an interest in amateur radio and astronomy when I was a kid [as well as] the space program. When I was a teenager, I became pretty active, building equipment and learning more about electronics and finding things in the sky, trying to understand what I was seeing and hearing.” Now, Tilley works as an electrical engineer putting together marine power units.
As that chat with NASA suggests, LES-5 is not the only lost spacecraft Tilley has discovered. In 2018 he also managed to locate the NASA space probe IMAGE, which had seemingly vanished back in 2005. And while talking to the agency about his hobby of hunting down satellites, Tilley said, “There are so many of them. It’s like studying a forest, but you have to look at the individual trees to make sense of it all. It always amazes me.”
So, while the truth may be out there, it’s not in the form of aliens from outer space. Instead, if you’re a ham radio operator, you may just uncover the ghostly signals of zombie satellites that orbit the Earth. And if you do decide to take up amateur radio as a hobby, then look out for the call sign G3YPQ – which belongs to none other than Williams himself.