Another heroic failure

By Kurt Kleiner Washington DC RADIO hams across the world must be wondering when their luck will change. After a series of failures going back 17 years, they notched up yet another last week when they missed a deadline that would have ensured their latest DIY satellite a cheap ride aboard Ariane 5 next month. The satellite, made largely from leftover and donated parts put together by volunteers, will allow hams all over the world to bounce messages back and forth to one another, greatly increasing the reliability and range of their communications. The low-tech spacecraft, built by the international ham radio group AMSAT, was scheduled for launch in late September. But last month, officials from the European Space Agency (ESA) revised their estimate of how rough a ride the satellite would have to tolerate, and AMSAT could not reinforce the structure in time. Radio hams have been launching their own satellites since 1961, and some, with limited capabilities, are still in orbit. This satellite, the fourth in AMSAT’s Phase III series, would be the most advanced yet, covering a larger area and providing a wider range of frequencies. It would also follow a fairly regular schedule, making it much easier for ham radio operators to track and communicate with it. But the Phase III generation of satellites, which were intended to travel in high elliptical orbits to provide better coverage, have suffered a series of embarrassing mishaps.The first, launched in 1980, was destroyed when the rocket blew up. The second is still in orbit but its off-the-shelf electronics were crippled by radiation. The third was placed in what turned out to be an unstable orbit and burnt up in the Earth’s atmosphere last December. The current problems are the result of AMSAT’s decision to save money by hitching a ride on one of ESA’s experimental launches of its Ariane 5 rocket, itself dogged by bad luck. The satellite was originally scheduled for launch in July, but that flight was postponed. Even now, ESA is not sure how badly Ariane 5 will shake its payload, but when it suddenly increased its estimate last month, AMSAT could not strengthen its satellite in time. “That’s what happens with developmental launches,” says Keith Baker, executive president of AMSAT-North America. He says it was worth taking a risk on Ariane because of the low cost of the launch. A commercial launch would cost between $10 and $15 million, he says. Although he would not reveal how much ESA was charging, the total cost of building and launching the satellite was only $4 million, which was paid for by AMSAT’s members. There is a slim chance that Ariane 5 will be delayed again, and the satellite could still make the flight. If not, says Baker, AMSAT will aim to be on board a later test flight,
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