Stanford researchers try to solve satellite mystery

January 5, 2011 12:00:00 AM PST
Sending a spacecraft into orbit is a tenuous business. Surviving the launch is only part of the challenge. Once it is in space, it must survive the rigors of that environment. That can be tough on hardware.

It is one of those under-reported mysteries of the space age -- a rocket delivers a payload into orbit, or on a mission, all appears fine, and then...

"Unfortunately, we do not have one way or two way communication with the spacecraft," Stanford university researcher Sigrid Close said.

It happens regularly.

"Satellites are failing, there are anomalies and we are not quite sure what is happening," Close said.

But at Stanford University, Close and PhD candidate Nicolas Lee have been thinking about it.

"Most people focus on mechanical damage," Close said.

One theory is that these satellites are victims of meteoroids, which are smaller than grains of sand, but moving at 60 kilometers per second. When they hit a satellite, they ionize and leave behind an electrical charge.

To prove it, Close and Lee have put together a mechanism that they hope to send into space on a small satellite to unfold and see what happens.

"What we are trying to do here is increase the area of a small satellite so it gets hit," Lee said.

But, no one is going to pay for such an experiment before they know it works in zero gravity. Hence, the time Lee spent in the "vomit comet." It can be a strange place for research.

"It's kind of like floating in water, except the big difference is you can't swim," Lee said of the weightless experience.

Through 80 weightless cycles of fifteen seconds each, Lee released versions of the umbrella to see how they would unfold. Ultimately, researchers want something fast, reliable and capable of recording meteoroid impacts.

But gathering data in such conditions can be a challenge.

"As soon as gravity left, I was pushing down, shooting to the ceiling. I had one arm pushing down, but it took time to get used to that," Lee said.

Now comes the wait for some aerospace company to write a check.

"About a million dollars will do it over the course of three years," Close said.

How much will it save?

"Potentially? Billions," Close said.

What price to solve a mystery?