Long before Yuri Gagarin and Alan Shepard orbited the Earth, satellites and probes allowed us to see the universe all around us without ever leaving home. Even now, with a space station more than 250 miles above us, satellites help us with everything from global weather patterns to just getting to the local coffee shop.
Most satellites are pretty normal, with a set mission they complete over a set amount of time. Many even fade into the background, unsung heroes of our own path to a better understanding of the universe. Sometime, however, strange things happen along the way and some of the quirkiest and strange moments in space history occur. Here are 3 of my favorites.
1. THAT’S NO ASTRONAUT
Due to the small size of the ISS, everything has to serve a purpose - sometimes more than one purpose. Recycling is a key way to make this happen. Urine is turned into water, water is turned into air, and so forth in cycles. Something that wasn’t recycled was the spacesuits. You might not know it but spacesuits come with an expired date; after a certain number of uses, they can’t be used for soacewalks anymore. Without enough room to be brought back, they just sit in the ISS. Sergey Samburov had the idea that they could be turned into satellites. A retired Russian Orlan spacesuit was used to make that idea come to life. A radio transmitter was fixed to the helmet and batteries were placed inside the suit-turned-satellite.
The mission was a partial success. While radio transmissions were harder to pick up than planned and the suit ran out of battery power after two orbits, it proved the idea could work. On an even more important note, it got kids and adults alike excited about the space program and got them outside, listening to the sky.
The pictures of the released spacesuit-satellite are absolutely stunning, showing the striking different in the size of a human and our terrestrial home. The main image of this blog post is a Suit-Sat image, taken just after it was released from the ISS.
2. THE SPACECRAFT FOR ALL
Launched in 1978, the International Sun-Earth Explorer-3 was a legend in its own right. It was the first spacecraft to be placed in the L1 Lagrangian point and the first craft to visit a comet (it passed through the tail of Giacobini-Zinner). What really makes ISEE-3 special is what happened well after NASA suspended communication in 1997.
Using crowdsourced funds, a group called the ISEE-3 Reboot Project wanted to regain communication and utilize the probe. Officials from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center had already said in early 2014 that the equipment needed to allow the Deep Space Network to communicate with ISEE-3 was too outdated and expensive to install. The Reboot Project set out and found documentation referencing the needed equipment and they were able to simulate it using modern electronics. In May of 2014, the group had reestablished two-way communication with the satellite. By July, ISEE-3’s thrusters were fired up for the first time since 1987. Due to a lack of nitrogen used to pressurize the fuel tank, that was the last orbital maneuver they were able to make. In September 2014, communication was lost again and the exact orbit is still unknown.
I highly recommend checking out the rest of the project’s story on their website, spacecraftforall.com.
3. GONE FROM THE GECKO
The launch of Russia’s Foton-M No. 4 mission - designed for a wide variety of bioscience experiments - was as smooth as the silk produced by the silkworms it was carrying. However, after 4 successful orbits, it quit responding to ground commands. The silkworms, geckos, and fruit flies were now on a mission without any assistance from the ground. Because of this, what Foton-M No. 4 is most famous for now is a string of tweets and memes discussing how a satellite filled with mating geckos was circling Earth and it was completely out of our control.
Communication was later regained, after experiments had already begun, and the satellite automatically landed on September 1st, two weeks before it was originally intended to land. Unfortunately, none of the geckos survived the trip. However, some of the fruit flies made it and were able to mate successfully once back on Earth.