About once a day, mission controllers at the University of Toronto’s Space Flight Laboratory point a radio dish at a piece of orbiting space debris and say “Hello” to Montreal. One day they hope to get an answer back.
In this case, Montreal is not a city but the name of a small Canadian astronomy satellite launched from Russia on June 19 along with more than 30 others. All, including Montreal’s sister satellite named Toronto, were successfully lofted into orbit by a repurposed Soviet-era missile.
But Montreal failed to signal Earth after launch and has not shown up on radar.
Its disappearance has left engineers with a million-dollar mystery.
There is also a lingering tension among engineers at the Downsview, Ont., laboratory over how little information they’ve been able to pry from the satellite’s Moscow-based launch provider, ISC Kosmotras.
“They sent us some telemetry, but it didn’t tell us anything,” said Robert Zee, the lab’s director.
The uncertainty means there’s still a chance the satellite could come to life – maybe today, maybe next year – because Dr. Zee and his team suspect it remains trapped inside the rocket’s now-inert upper stage, which is still circling Earth.
During launch, the satellite is designed to be held in place by its release mechanism, called the XPOD, also built by the Toronto team. Prior to release, the mechanism is held shut with a cord made of vectran, a nylon-like material. Now, in the extreme environment of space, exposure to radiation and steep temperature changes could weaken the cord, eventually allowing the satellite to break free of its metal cocoon, ready to communicate.
“If the cord snaps, our chances of being able to talk to the satellite are very high,” said Dr. Zee.
But Dr. Zee is less optimistic that he and his colleagues will ever learn definitively why the satellite failed to emerge in the first place, in part because of a dearth of data from Kosmotras.
Initially, the company did not acknowledge the failure. Its website still states that all the satellites that it sent to space on a Dnepr rocket two months ago were “successfully inserted into their target orbits,” including payloads from Japan, Spain, Italy and Saudi Arabia. But, in an e-mail to The Globe and Mail, Evgeny Solodovnikov, the company’s marketing director said, “we now know that [Montreal] didn’t separate from the launcher.”
Mr. Solodovnikov said the signal to release the satellite was sent to the XPOD as planned. That may suggest the XPOD had a problem or that there was a broken connection somewhere inside the rocket.
Finding out exactly what happened could help avert a future failure. But Kosmotras either does not have or has chosen not to share any further details that might indicate whether the XPOD received the release signal. The Toronto team has rechecked its data for any signs of a problem with the XPOD system, which has worked without a hitch on 21 previous occasions.
“We’re having a hard time proving it’s our fault,” he said. “It looks like everything was working.”
The team’s difficulty in assessing what happened adds a further layer of awkwardness over a launch that could well have been cancelled earlier this year because of Russia’s involvement in the crisis in Ukraine.
Canada has successfully launched payloads with Kosmotras in the past. But the latest experience suggests that access to telemetry – data that show how all the systems of a spacecraft are performing during flight – will be a priority for the University of Toronto laboratory “even more explicitly than it already is,” when it negotiates future contracts with launch providers, Dr. Zee said.
The 20-centimetre-tall satellite was to have been part of the BRITE project, a three-nation effort initiated by astronomers in Canada more than a decade ago to measure slight variations in the light coming from the brightest stars in the sky. The variations should provide clues to the stars’ inner workings.
The project included six satellites, all built in Canada or using the same Canadian design. Austria launched two satellites last year, followed by one from Poland. A second Polish satellite was successfully launched last week.
Canada’s one remaining satellite, which is working well, brings the total in the constellation to five. By prior agreement, data gathered by all the satellites are shared equally among the three partner countries.
“Missing BRITE-Montreal is not great but we’ll manage,” said Anthony Moffat, an astronomer at the University of Montreal and the project’s lead scientist in Canada. “And there is a chance it could become dislodged and become usable after all.”
The loss clouds what has otherwise been a banner season at the lab, including the launch of a pair of satellites designed to demonstrate formation flying and another, built for Norway, to monitor signals from ships at sea. A small satellite that the lab has devised to unfurl a kind of drag sail to de-orbit space junk will be completed later this fall, though a launch has not yet been scheduled.