After another satellite went out of service in geostationary orbit this week, at least temporarily, new data now suggests the spacecraft may not be recoverable.
On Wednesday, the satellite operator Intelsat acknowledged a “service outage” on its Intelsat 29e satellite, which had affected maritime, aeronautical, and wireless operator customers in Latin America, the Caribbean, and North Atlantic.
During the incident on Sunday, April 7, the spacecraft’s propulsion system “experienced damage that caused a leak of the propellant on board the satellite,” Intelsat said. At that time, Intelsat was periodically losing communication with the satellite, but the company was working with its manufacturer, Boeing, to restore the connection.
However, new data from ExoAnalytic Solutions, which has a network of 300 telescopes around the planet to track satellite movements in geostationary space, shows the situation has gotten markedly worse.
Since being alerted to the anomaly on Sunday, the company has been tracking Intelsat 29e with at least two telescopes at all time, the company’s chief executive, Doug Hendrix, told Ars. On Thursday, one of those telescopes captured the video embedded below, which shows a continued splintering of the satellite over a period of four hours. The ball of light at center is Intelsat 29e, and the streaks are background stars. First, there is a series of anomalous out-gassing events from the spacecraft, after which a persistent halo remains. As the halo dissipates, there are several pieces of debris that are continued to be tracked.
Before Thursday’s incident, the satellite had been drifting by about 0.5 degree, per day, to the east. After the sequence of events, that drifting motion has increased to 1 degree a day, Hendrix said. The main satellite and several of the debris pieces are now in orbits that cross geosynchronous altitude.
For now, Hendrix said the company will work backward, reviewing data to try and determine whether some kind of external event, such as a micro-meteorite or existing debris in the geostationary environment, might have caused the initial problem with the satellite, which was only three years old and near the beginning of its on-orbit lifetime. “When there is an anomaly like this with a young satellite, it compels us to understand the external environment,” he said.
The Intelsat 29e anomaly comes amid a string of satellite issues in geostationary orbit, where large communications and observation satellites can look down at the same area of the planet without expending fuel to maintain their position. During the last two years, satellites such as AMC-9, Telkom-1, AMOS-5, Eutelsat-33B, EchoStar-3, and Galaxy 11 have all experienced on orbit anomalies.
“Our team is reviewing this data to identify any potential trends, commonalities, and potentially common causes with incidents,” Hendrix said. “We’re hopeful that our analysis will find compelling evidence to understand what happened with Intelsat 29e, and possibly previous on orbit anomalies.”