Space Aged: 10 Spacecraft from Decades Past That Are Still Ticking [Slide Show]
Whether peering into deep space or checking on human activity, spacecraft and satellites from days gone by are still on the job
LAGEOS 1 (1976): The LAGEOS 1 (Laser Geodynamics Satellite) and its younger counterpart LAGEOS 2, launched in 1992, are passive satellites, meaning there is precious little to break or go wrong. The LAGEOS twins are 60-centimeter-wide spheres with 426 reflectors each, designed to provide ground stations with a reference point for accurate ranging data. By bouncing laser light off a stably orbiting LAGEOS, the position of a ground station can be determined to within a few centimeters, generating a long-term data set to track tectonic drift and the changing of Earth's axial tilt. NASA expects the LAGEOS satellites to remain in orbit for eight million years.
HUBBLE SPACE TELESCOPE (1990): Thanks to a series of complex servicing missions by space shuttle astronauts, the Hubble Space Telescope, deployed one shuttle flight prior to the now-defunct Ulysses, is still going strong 19 years into its operational life. The most recent servicing mission, in May, will likely be humankind's final visit to the telescope, which has provided astronomers with some of their best views of the universe. With a slew of new parts and upgraded instruments, Hubble should continue to inform the fields of cosmology and astrophysics, helping to elucidate the origin and evolution of the universe, for at least five to 10 more years.
LANDSAT 5 (1984): The U.S. Geological Survey's Earth-observing Landsat 5 has captured hundreds of thousands of photographs of our changing planet in its 25 years on orbit. (The U.S. Geological Survey says the satellite was designed for three years of service.) The orbiter has tracked the aftermath of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster and the burn scars left by fires in Yellowstone National Park. As recently as March Landsat 5 was in position to witness an eruption of Mount Redoubt in Alaska, just days after the volcano first sprang to life after 20 years of dormancy.
ISEE 3/ICE (1978): The third spacecraft of the International Sun–Earth Explorer (ISEE) program began its work in an orbit between the sun and Earth. From its position there, ISEE 3 monitored cosmic gamma-ray bursts and solar flares before being rechristened the International Cometary Explorer (ICE) in 1982. ICE flew from its original orbit to a rendezvous with Comet Giacobini-Zinner in 1985 and then investigated Comet Halley the following year.
In 1997 operations for the ISEE 3/ICE spacecraft finally concluded. But its stable orbit allowed NASA's Deep Space Network to locate and contact the spacecraft in September 2008. ISEE 3/ICE is making its way back and should approach Earth's vicinity around 2014; the spacecraft's former flight director Robert Farquhar says it should still be in good shape. With enough fuel left to maneuver the spacecraft, Farquhar would like to see ISEE 3/ICE revived and returned to its original orbit between the sun and Earth, where it could become a relatively inexpensive space project for students to work on. NASA Advertisement
GOES 7 (1987): Another member of the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite family, GOES 7 was launched in 1987 and served its purpose as a meteorological observer for a dozen years. Having expended the fuel needed to maintain its orbit over the equator and beginning to drift to higher latitudes, the satellite was transitioned by NOAA to PEACESAT, a nonprofit that provides communication and educational services to the Pacific Islands. Prior to acquiring GOES 7's services, PEACESAT made use of GOES 3 and ATS 3, two of the satellites that also served the U.S. Antarctic Program. In this photograph, a worker checks on a satellite of the GOES 7 class.
PIONEER 6 (1965): The solar-orbiting Pioneer spacecraft numbered 6 through 9 were early explorers of interplanetary phenomena such as cosmic rays and the newly confirmed solar wind. Pioneer 6, the first of the four craft to launch, was still ticking as recently as 2000—ground controllers locked onto the spacecraft for a few hours to commemorate the 35th anniversary of its launch. Larry Lasher of the NASA Ames Research Center, former project manager for the Pioneer missions, says that he is not aware of any plans to check in on Pioneer 6 for the 45th anniversary of its deployment next year, and technical changes at NASA's Deep Space Network make such an attempt more difficult than it used to be. All the same, Lasher says Pioneer 6 is undoubtedly following its orbit around the sun and would likely be reachable if the infrastructural barriers to contact did not exist.
VOYAGERS 1 AND 2 (1977): Voyager 1, having journeyed for more than 30 years, is now the farthest man-made object in the universe at more than 10 billion miles from the sun. Voyager 2 is taking a slower route that allowed flybys of Uranus and Neptune—the first and only space probe to do so. Both spacecraft continue to function today, and they could become the first probes to report back from interstellar space when they escape the solar system as expected in the next five to 10 years. Should they ever encounter an alien civilization, both Voyagers carry a Golden Record, a 12-inch gold-plated LP spearheaded by astronomer Carl Sagan with a selection of music, nature sounds and greetings from Earth in numerous languages. Each LP comes with a stylus and symbolic instructions for playing the record as well as a written message from then-President Jimmy Carter.
AMSAT-OSCAR 7 (1974): A satellite launched for amateur radio communications in 1974, AMSAT–OSCAR 7 (AO 7) fell dormant in 1981 when a battery failed. In 2002, however, a ham radio user picked up a signal from the aging orbiter's beacon. Running off solar power alone, the satellite shuts down each time it loses sunlight, then reboots when it comes back to the dayside, making its behavior somewhat glitchy. But AO 7 and its transponders remain operational to this day.
TDRS 1 (1983): The first of NASA's Tracking and Data Relay Satellites (TDRS) was released from space shuttle
Challenger in 1983—its deployment is shown in the photograph above. The TDRS system provides a communications network between the ground and spacecraft and satellites in low Earth orbit.
Nowadays TDRS 1 complements GOES 3 in providing communications to the U.S. Antarctic Program. Like GOES 3, TDRS 1 has assumed a more inclined orbit over the years. According to a NASA history of the Spaceflight Tracking and Data Network, the satellite was used for the dramatic 1999 biopsy and videoconferenced diagnosis of Jerri FitzGerald, a doctor who discovered a lump in her breast while stationed on Antarctica. Marooned by the southern winter, she treated herself for what proved to be cancer until the weather improved and she could be flown out. FitzGerald's cancer recurred several years later, and she died last month at age 57. NASA
GOES 3 (1978): Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite 3 (GOES 3) was the third in a series of National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) weather satellites designed to maintain a fixed position relative to Earth. (The program is ongoing; GOES 14 was launched in June.) About 10 years ago GOES 3 was repurposed as a communications satellite for the U.S. Antarctic Program. As the satellite has drifted over the years, its orbital tilt, or inclination, relative to Earth's equator has increased, making it more available to the far southern Antarctic stations. An artist's representation of a satellite from GOES 3's class is shown above.
Until five years ago, an even older satellite known as ATS 3 (for Applications Technology Satellite), launched in 1967, was active in the constellation of Antarctic communication satellites, having entered service with the arrival of an Apple IIe terminal to operate ATS 3 from Antarctica in 1984. That satellite was finally deactivated in 2004 after 37 years of operation, according to Patrick Smith, the manager of technology development, Antarctic infrastructure and logistics for the National Science Foundation. NASA Advertisement