Space Geckos

Sex geckos and the nuclear football: a history of getting lost in space

For a science headline to capture the wider public’s imagination, it generally helps if it involves at least one of the following six things:

  1. An out-of-control experiment
  2. Space,
  3. The End Of Life As We Know It
  4. A non-western nation
  5. A weird animal,
  6. Sex

So it came as no surprise to see how quickly Foton-5, the spacecraft of Russia’s troubled biomedical research institute, made headlines around the world. The Washington Post website literally managed to hit 5 out of 6 crowd pleasers with the headline:  “There is a lizard sex satellite floating in space and Russia no longer has it under control.”

Fortunately, Roscosmos were able to quickly re-establish contact with the craft*. Unfortunately, although the Foton-5 itself landed safely, the geckos themselves weren’t so lucky.

So long, noble space adventuring sex geckos.

The tragic tale of these licentious lizards is only a small part of a rich narrative on the theme of slowly drifting through the cosmos. The idea of being lost in space is an enduring one in popular culture. In fact, it was the name given to an entire TV series in the 1960s. Ever since the film Alien, lost ships appear frequently as plot elements throughout science fiction films with the best/worst being 1997’s Event Horizon.­ Whilst the Russian geckos didn’t return having killed each other because of the demonic possession of their satellite  (yeah, that really is the plot of Event Horizon), real life spaceships do occasionally get lost in space.

In August, the ESA announced that 2 of its Galileo satellites reached the wrong orbit after their launch vehicle malfunctioned, putting them in an eccentric oval shaped orbit around Earth.

But not all failures are to do with the rockets not working, and some losses are much more spectacular and bizarre. So the question is, how many hunks of junk are there in and around the solar system that we can’t communicate with, and how did they get that way?

1. Telstar and the Starfish

The Telstar satellite and the football design it inspired

The Telstar satellite and the football design it inspired [x] [x]

Telstar 1 was a solar-paneled orb designed for the first transatlantic transmission of TV images, telephone calls and faxes (like emails, but noisier). The satellite’s iconic design was copied by Adidas for the football used in the 1970 & ’74 World Cups, giving us the black and white  footballs with pentagonal paneling we know today.

Funded by AT&T, NASA and the British and French Post offices, Telstar 1 was lost almost immediately because the day before it was launched from Cape Canaveral in Florida, the US Air force decided to nuke outer space.

The Starfish Prime weapons test involved putting a huge bomb on top of a rocket and detonating it on the edge of space to see  what would happen. It took place on the other side of the planet from where Telstar was being launched, but it produced a huge amount of radioactivity and energy that circled the upper reaches of the atmosphere for days. The plucky little Telstar was launched straight into the middle of this swirling maelstrom of high-energy rays, and its control electronics were overwhelmed within a couple of days.  Telstar wasn’t alone either; at least 3 other satellites that were already in orbit had their electronic circuits completely frazzled by Starfish, including the first British satellite Ariel 1.

Starfish Prime Weapons test

Would you launch a space ship into this? This is what it looks like when you nuke space (detonation took place at 11pm, that’s not the sun behind a cloud, that’s the bomb) [x]

How Lost? –  Telstar 1 is still in a non-decaying orbit and it’s likely to stay there for a very long time, but we can’t do anything with it so it’s pretty useless. 6/10

2. The Empire Strikes Back

The MCO as it was supposed to look

The MCO as it was supposed to look [NASA]

Imperial units — such as pounds, feet and inches — are used by only three nations on earth. Alongside the scientifically prolific states of Liberia and Myanmar stands the United States of America, proudly using a measurement system at least partly based on the length of three grains of barley placed side by side. Scientists and engineers, however, tend to be quite keen on logic and reason, so even in America precision-made machines are often made using metric units. Inevitably, the dual use of both measurement systems can lead to some confusion.

Such was the case with the Mars Climate Orbiter, a probe sent to Mars in 1998 to examine its atmosphere. Problems arose because the guys at NASA who designed it and the guys at Lockheed Martin who built it didn’t quite see eye-to-eye on whether or not the thrusters on the craft should use pound-seconds (lbf∙s, an Imperial measure of thrust) or newton-seconds (N∙s, the metric equivalent). Unfortunately this meant the Orbiter was built for the latter but received instructions in the former, and with 1 lbf∙s equalling 4.5 N∙s, the craft hurtled towards Mars with four and a half times the amount of thrust it was supposed to. This meant that it bumped into Mars’s atmosphere a whole 169 miles lower than planned. Sadly for the craft, given the incredible speed at which it was now travelling, the thicker air at this altitude meant it broke apart as though it had crashed into a brick wall.

Helpful diagram from the "Mars Climate Orbiter Mishap Investigation Board" report showing that the bit where it went wrong was when it slammed into the upper atmosphere

Helpful diagram from the “Mars Climate Orbiter Mishap Investigation Board” report showing that the bit where it went wrong was the bit when it slammed into the martian upper atmosphere. ** [NASA]

How Lost? – Well it’s now just a steaming heap on the surface of Mars, so I’d say it’s pretty “Lost” in that sense, but as Mars-orbiting satellites have spotted potential remains, we do technically know where most of it is. 9/10

3. ISEE-3 and Citizen Space Science

An artists impression of the ISEE-3 probe staring wistfully after a comet it would be chasing, if only its thrusters worked.

An artists impression of the ISEE-3 probe staring wistfully after a comet it would be chasing, if only its thrusters worked. [NASA]

Launched in 1978, the International Sun/Earth Explorer 3 (ISEE-3) satellite was designed to be a giant robot space laboratory. It originally sat between the Sun and the Earth, measuring how solar cosmic rays  interacted with the Earth’s magnetic field, as well as doing some analysis on comets. In 1997 NASA decided to retire the obsolete craft, leaving it in the Sun’s orbit.

in 2008, however, it was realised that the craft was still very much alive, and 12 of its 13 on-board experiments were still working. Furthermore, calculations revealed  that by 2014 it would come close enough to the Earth for it to be contacted. However NASA said they weren’t interested in doing so, and no longer knew how to communicate with the satellite. Thus began is ISEE-3 Rebot project, where a group of engineers and scientists got $200,000 dollars in charity money to borrow high-powered radio transmitters to communicate with the craft. The Reboot is a fascinating and exciting project that is way too amazing to be summed up in a paragraph here, so I refer you over to its excellent blog and great twitter that can give you substantially more up-to-date info than I can here.

Long story short though, the 28 years that ISEE-3 spent in the cold vacuum of space prevented its rockets from working properly, but the team have now been able to re-establish contact with all of its  on-board experiments and are now using it to do scientific research.

How Lost? –  Arguably ‘found’, but the lack of any thrust control means sadly the ISEE-3 will eventually drift away again for another 17 years. Hopefully a new generation of coders will be able to have a play when it comes around again in 2031 [update: in a report published after this blog, the ISEE-3 reboot team are optimistic that in 17 years it will be okay.]  3/10

If you'd gone on a journey this complicated, you could be forgiven for getting a little lost

If you’ve been on a journey this complicated, you could be forgiven for getting a little lost [NASA]

4. Voyager 1, boldly going where no-one knows where


XKCDs appraisal of the Voyager headlines

Voyager 1, the man-made object to have travelled furthest from Earth, has become something of a running joke. About twice a year headlines announce it has officially “Left the Solar System” and it’s becoming a bit of a wonder if it actually knows where it is.

In fairness to Voyager 1, which is cruising away from the Sun at a fairly ridiculous 17 kilometers per second, the multiple farewell performances  are more to do with scientists not actually knowing (or agreeing) where the solar system actually ends. In this regard, data from the geriatric space probe are immensely useful for astrophysicists, and recent studies suggest that it still may have some way to go.

How Lost: Poor old Voyager has no idea if it’s coming or going. 10/10

An artists impression of where Voyager 1 might be, maybe, who knows?

An artists impression of where Voyager 1 might be, maybe, who knows? [x]




* Unfortunately for comedians such as John Oliver, the Russians were able to re-establish the connection so quickly that by the time their celebrity-endorsed video clips made it to broadcast, they were already out of date. Deciding that accurate representations of science should never get in a way of a joke they decided to air it anyway, and the sight of Buzz Aldrin staring deeply down a camera lens imploring humanity to #gogetthosegeckos is an amusing one.

** For more fun diagrams and a 44 page document outlining why it’s a bad idea to not work out what units everyone building your spaceship is using before you strap it to a giant rocket, the MCO Mishap Investigation report can be downloaded here

Updates: This post has been updated to reflect the return of the Geckos to earth and their sad demise. Also the additional inclusion of the ESAs Galileo mishap.

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