The operators of a cut-price British space satellite for schools are turning to American engineers for help in rescuing the vehicle. UOSAT-2, built by electronic engineers at Surrey University outside London, entered orbit on a NASA rocket on March 1. The event was a climax to a hectic five months during which the British team built the satellite for just (STR)300, 000 ($426,000) - one-tenth of the cost of a comparable craft constructed in industry.
But after just three orbits of the earth, the satellite stopped transmitting. The mishap has mystified its engineers. In an effort to resuscitate the craft, they have asked colleagues at Stanford University in California to blast high-power radio waves at the orbiting hardware.
This tactic, the British team believes, could rectify any small electronic defects on board the craft - a faulty connection in wiring, for example - and stimulate it into action.
Stanford has a more powerful radio transmitter than that at Surrey. It can send radiation of the order of gigawatts rather than kilowatts - in other words, waves of a power level 1,000 times higher.
A similar move coaxed into life an earlier Surrey vehicle, UOSAT-1, which another NASA rocket had put into orbit in 1981. This again gave up the ghost for a few months, but the high-power Stanford transmitter returned it to action.
The first Surrey satellite is still orbiting the world at a height of about 500 km. The university team says it hopes Stanford will try to rescue the second vehicle within the next two weeks.
Both the Surrey satellites were constructed very cheaply to test methods of building spacecraft more economically. The engineers used inexpensive components wherever possible and worked around the clock to reduce labor costs.
They say the cost-cutting in the design was not responsible for the fault. If the vehicle had been incorrectly constructed, says Richard Macbeth, a member of the Surrey team, then it would not have worked perfectly on its first three orbits.
The satellite was due to relay messages between radio hams and to help out in school science lessons, for example, in sending rudimentary technical data about the earth's magnetic field to cheap radio receivers. UOSAT-2, like its predecessor UOSAT-1, carries a speech synthesizer that channels to earth spoken messages - a bonus for school pupils who tune in.