On Thursday, satellite service provider Intelsat announced that one of its communications satellites is now completely lost in orbit above Earth, making the vehicle a piece of space debris that can not be moved. Intelsat says something has damaged the satellite, causing its onboard propeller to leak into space. Now, without the ability to maneuver and communicate, the satellite can pose a potential threat to other vehicles in the same orbit.
For Intelsat, the most obvious consequence of the loss is financial. Built by Boeing, the satellite, called Intelsat 29e, cost between $ 400 and $ 450 million and should operate for up to 15 years in space. But now his life was cut short after only three years in orbit, preventing Intelsat from receiving any planned revenue from communications coverage of the spacecraft in North and South America.
But the satellite, now dead, is also a liability for other satellites that are on a similar trajectory. The spacecraft's orbit is high, above Earth, known as the geostationary orbit, or GEO – a path above the equator, where satellites combine with the planet's eastern rotation. This means that they essentially "hover" over the same stretch of the Earth at all times. It is a popular location for depositing communications satellites and surveillance because they stay in one place in the sky for years.
The problem with this orbit, however, is unbelievably high – about 22,000 miles above the surface of the planet. Satellites in this orbit are less affected by Earth's atmosphere and are not drawn as easily as satellites in lower orbits. So if a satellite fails in this orbit, like Intelsat 29e, it's basically stuck there for hundreds of years and will not fall. Because of the damage that the Intelsat 29e suffered, the satellite is now somewhat out of control in this orbit, which means it can intersect with other GEO satellites in the next few years. This means that there is a chance of future collisions that can cause even more fragments.
"It's a big problem because now basically you have a floating bomb in GEO," says Jonathan McDowell, a Harvard astrophysicist and space explorer. The Verge.
It is unclear exactly what caused the damage to the Intelsat 29e. Intelsat says it is working with Boeing to determine whether something like space debris is to blame or whether the damage was caused by something on the satellite itself. Whatever happened happened on April 7, when customers stopped receiving satellite communications. Video footage of a company called ExoAnalytic Solutions showed the propellant of the satellite leaking into space. Intelsat also clarified that a second fault occurred during efforts to recover the vehicle, resulting in the total loss of the satellite.
Now Intelsat 29e is moving a little faster than it would if it were in its proper geostationary orbit, Intelsat confirms. The satellite now takes less than 23 hours and 56 minutes to complete a rotation around Earth, the normal time for most other geostationary operational satellites. "All other GEO satellites are keeping pace with Earth," says McDowell. "So every day, it's going to go through some more satellites."
In addition, the satellite's orbit is now slightly more elliptical than it used to be, so it's coming and going from Earth about 160 miles, says McDowell. Intelsat has confirmed that the orbit is more elliptical now. Most of the other satellites in geostationary orbit are on a very circular path. So Intelsat is not only moving a little faster than anything else, it's also coming in and out of orbit much more wildly.
It is likely that this orbit will become even more different over time as the satellite is still drifting and the gravity of the Sun and Moon will pull the spacecraft. In addition, if there are still traces of fuel in the spacecraft, the fluid may continue to leak into space, causing more orbital changes. And without any way to maneuver the satellite, there is nothing to be done. Intelsat 29e is now at the mercy of the space environment.
Fortunately, the Intelsat 29e is a fairly large spacecraft, weighing in excess of 14,000 pounds, and can be easily traced by the US Space Surveillance Network, a set of telescopes operated by the US Department of Defense. Intelsat is also keeping an eye on it as well, according to the company. Therefore, if the spacecraft comes too close to another operational satellite, the Air Force will send an alert and the operator can temporarily move the vehicle in operation while the Intelsat 29e passes.
So that no one thinks that the IS-29E is our only threat at GEO today, here is a view of everything crawled in that region of the GEO Protected Zone. Green are operational satellites, orange are dead, red are rocket bodies, yellow are other debris: https://t.co/xL1QfuoX9P pic.twitter.com/1gX4PfhCAg
But it is possible that there are still other tiny fragments that have come off the Intelsat 29e during its strange failure that can not be seen. If these pieces are smaller than a baseball, the Space Surveillance Network will not be able to pick them because it is beyond the capabilities of the system. And these objects can still cause damage if they get on a working satellite, since they are moving at super high speed in orbit. "The collisions are more likely to be in the range of hundreds of miles per hour," says McDowell. "Then more like a road car accident." Intelsat could not confirm for The Verge if there is any fragment of debris associated with the accident.
This is not exactly a new problem, since Intelsat 29e is not the only satellite killed in geostationary orbit. But this space region is a very precious resource for the aerospace industry. It is one of the main destinations of communication satellites and, if it gets full of debris, it will no longer be usable. That's why adding another satellite to this arena is a major concern.
For now, there is nothing to be done except to follow the Intelsat 29e and find out what has happened to it, lest it happen again. Meanwhile, if you have a satellite passing near the Intelsat 29e, you may have to do a few tricks to get it out of the way.