Rogue satellites must be turning into a thing. Last year, China lost control of its Tiangong-1 space station, which mostly burned up in the atmosphere and fell to Earth without bonking anyone on the head. Now Russia can no longer get its enormous Spektr-R (aka RadioAstron) telescope — its only space telescope — to respond to mission control.
Nothing like this has happened to Spektr-R in over seven years. The disconnect apparently happened when it was unresponsive to a command to switch on its transmitter. The floating space station beams telemetry data to Earth and gets operational commands beamed back, which is kind of a huge deal if it’s going to observe what scientists want it to.
"The problem is that the onboard control system failed to switch a transmitter upon receiving a signal from the ground. This transmitter is a part of a system that sends telemetry data to the ground and receives operational commands," Yuri Kovalev, heads of the RadioAstron scientific program that involves Spektr-R, told Russian news agency TASS.
Not all is lost in space. While nothing came from that communication attempt with Spektr-R, contact was made with a US observatory that monitors activity and gathers data from the spacecraft. While most of its scientific data is unrecoverable because it became impossible to aim its antenna at the ground, there is a flash of hope in the fact that Spektr-R hasn't completely shut itself off from ground communications.
The messages it keeps sending out about what it’s up to could mean that the glitch hasn’t messed with its scientific payload and operations.
"This means that our satellite is alive, that it has power on board, the scientific equipment continues to work and there is still a point in trying to establish contact with it," said Kovalev.
Roscosmos has officially stated that the problems which arose have cut off mission control from pulling off any targeted task, and that specialists from the Main Operational Group of Spacecraft Control are doing whatever they can to save their only space telescope. Not like NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope is going to give it competition anytime soon.
Spektr-R has already been going for 5 more years than it was supposed to, which I s2.6 times more than expected, so that in itself is pretty impressive.
Russia and Germany have joined forces for a new space telescope, Spektr-RG, later this year. Roscosmos is tasking the upgrade with the daunting task of putting together a complete map of the universe (never mind that the universe is infinite). That doesn’t mean Roscomos won’t stop trying to salvage Spektr-R.
"I cannot bury a satellite which is alive for sure," Kovalev insisted, even if his going on to compare the situation to a person clinging to life was slightly dramatic.
At least this one isn’t going to come hurtling down to Earth in pieces. Yet.