On Thursday, satellite service provider Intelsat announced that one of its communications satellites was now completely lost in orbit over the Earth, making the vehicle an irremovable space debris. Intelsat says something has damaged the satellite, causing the flight of his propeller on board in space. Now, without the ability to maneuver and communicate, the satellite could pose a potential threat to other vehicles in the same orbit.
For Intelsat, the most obvious consequence of the loss is a financial consequence. Built by Boeing, the satellite, called Intelsat 29th, cost between 400 and 450 million dollars and was supposed to work up to 15 years in space. But its lifespan was short after only three years in orbit, which prevented Intelsat from deriving an expected revenue from the probe's communications coverage in North and South America.
But the now dead satellite is also a handicap for other satellites that follow a similar trajectory. The orbit of the spacecraft is a high altitude above the Earth, called geostationary orbit, or GEO, a trajectory above the equator where the satellites match the rotation of the planet to the east. It basically means that you "fly over" the same part of the Earth at all times. It's a popular place to drop satellite communications and surveillance as they sit in the same place of the sky for years.
The problem with this orbit, however, is that it is incredibly high, about 22,000 miles above the surface of the planet. Satellites in this orbit are less affected by the Earth's atmosphere and are not trained as easily as satellites in lower orbits. So, if a satellite breaks down on this orbit, like Intelsat 29th, it is stuck up there for hundreds of years and will not be destroyed. Due to the damage caused by Intelsat 29th, the satellite is now slightly behind this orbit, which means that it could be crossing other GEO satellites in the coming years. This means that there is a chance of future collisions that could cause even more debris.
"It's a big problem, because now you have a floating bomb in GEO," says Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at Harvard and space flight tracker. The Verge.
It is unclear exactly what caused the damage to Intelsat 29th. Intelsat said it was working with Boeing to determine whether space debris was to blame or whether the damage was caused by something on the satellite itself. What happened on April 7 when customers stopped receiving satellite calls? A video footage from a company called ExoAnalytic Solutions showed that the satellite thruster was leaking into space. Intelsat also stated that a second failure occurred during vehicle recovery efforts, resulting in the total loss of the satellite.
Now, Intelsat 29th is moving slightly faster than it was on its own geostationary orbit, confirms Intelsat. It takes less than 23 hours and 56 minutes for the satellite to rotate around the Earth, the normal time for most other operational geostationary satellites. "All other GEO satellites follow Earth," McDowell said. "So every day or so, we'll have to spend a few extra satellites."
In addition, the satellite's orbit is now slightly more elliptical than before, it enters and leaves Earth about 160 km, said McDowell. Intelsat has confirmed that the orbit is more elliptical now. Most other satellites in geostationary orbit follow a fairly circular path. Thus, not only does Intelsat 29e move slightly faster than all the rest, but it also sneaks into orbit.
It is also 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 fire at the spacecraft. In addition, if there was fuel in the spacecraft, the fluid could continue to escape into space, causing more orbital changes. And without any way to maneuver the satellite, there is nothing to do. Intelsat 29th is now at the mercy of the space environment.
Fortunately, Intelsat 29e is a big spaceship weighing over 14,000 pounds. It can be easily tracked by the US surveillance network, a network of telescopes operated by the US Department of Defense. Intelsat is also closely monitoring it, according to the company. Thus, if the spacecraft approaches too close to another operational satellite, the air force sends an alert and the operator can temporarily move the vehicle into service during the passage of Intelsat 29th.
In case anyone thinks that the IS-29E is our only threat to GEO today, here is a glimpse of everything that has been done in this area of the GEO protected area. The greens are operational satellites, the orange are dead, the reds are rocket bodies, the yellows are debris: https://t.co/xL1QfuoX9P pic.twitter.com/1gX4PfhCAg
– T.S. Kelso (@TSKelso) April 16, 2019
But it is possible that there are still other debris that broke away from Intelsat 29th during his strange failure and that can not be seen. If these pieces are smaller than a baseball, the space monitoring network will not be able to retrieve them as this exceeds the capabilities of the system. And these objects can cause damage if they enter a satellite, because they move at high speed in orbit. "Collisions are more likely to be in the hundreds of thousands of people per hour," says McDowell. "It's more like a car accident on the highway." Intelsat could not confirm The edge There was debris associated with the accident.
However, this is not really a new problem because Intelsat 29e is not the only dead satellite in geostationary orbit. But this area of space is a very valuable resource for the aerospace industry. This is one of the unmissable destinations for communication satellites, and if it becomes cluttered with debris, it will no longer be usable. That's why adding another drifting satellite to this arena is a major concern.
For the moment, there is nothing to do except keep an eye on Intelsat 29e and understand what happened to it, so that it does not happen again. In the meantime, if you have a satellite that passes by Intelsat 29th, you may have some tips for getting out of it.