The incredible story of Olympus
Olympus-1 was a communications satellite built by British Aerospace for the European Space Agency. Powered by Saft batteries, Olympus-1, as its name suggested, was intended to cover the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona.
When it was launched on July 12, 1989, it was the largest civil communications satellite ever built, meaning it was sometimes known as "LargeSat" or "L-Sat."
However, on May 29, 1991, the ground control crew noticed that the satellite had reverted to its backup configuration. After losing the signal it used to orient itself in relation to Earth, it had automatically turned towards the Sun to keep its batteries charged. The engineers tried to send a command to correct the malfunction, but it contained an error. The satellite then started rotating on its axis, blocking the path of sunlight to the solar arrays that was keeping its battery charged. Eventually, the battery discharged entirely, which left Olympus unable to receive commands from Earth.
The satellite spun on its axis every 90 seconds, its temperature plunged below -50°C, and it drifted in space at a rate of 5 degrees per day. But on June 19, the panels happened to be turned toward the sun at an angle that allowed the batteries to charge slightly. They charged enough for the satellite to respond to a command sent from Perth, Australia.
By July 1, there was enough energy to turn the solar panels completely toward the sun, so that the batteries could charge. They reached full charge a week later, which allowed the ground crew to take control of the satellite and put it back on its trajectory.
Ultimately, the satellite was able to do what it was meant to and carry live broadcasts of the Olympics. The incident also proved that batteries could resist the extreme temperatures of space, even outside of the expected orbit for which they were made.
However, the troubles for Olympus-1 were not over: in 1994, it lost a gyroscope in the Perseids meteor shower. Once again it spun out of control and efforts to stabilize it used up most of its fuel. Its remaining energy was used to put it out of commission in a “graveyard” orbit, where it remains today.