Monday 4 September 2017

"They could be solar panels, fuel, or other debris. We don’t really know."

On August 26, the Indonesia based, state-owned satellite operator PT Telkom disclosed an "anomaly" in the pointing of its satellite in geostationary orbit. Company officials said that although they and contractor Lockheed Martin expected to restore service to the satellite, they were moving customers to another satellite as a precautionary measure.

However, new evidence gathered by a US-based firm that tracks objects in geostationary orbit, ExoAnalytic Solutions, suggests the satellite may be falling apart. The company uses algorithms to review data collected by its global network of 165 optical telescopes for anomalies, and one of its instruments in Eastern Australia spotted the satellite apparently breaking apart.

This is the second satellite in about two months to experience such an issue in geostationary orbit, a location about 36,000km above the planet where satellites can easily maintain their position over a fixed point on Earth. On the morning of June 17, the Luxembourg-based satellite operator SES lost at least partial control of a large satellite in geostationary space. ExoAnalytic has observed fragments of the AMC-9 satellite, too.

The company is tracking about 2,000 objects in geostationary orbit, some as small as about 20cm. Of these, about one-quarter are satellites—a mix of military, weather, and communications assets—and the rest is debris. An uncontrolled debris event at geostationary orbit is relatively rare, although there are concerns that they may be coming more common with more satellites in this valuable real estate.

"At GEO there are a lot of untracked pieces of debris that the Air Force does not publish," Hendrix said. "I don’t know if anyone knows the real population up there well enough to know whether this is a significant addition," he added about the pieces that appeared to break off of Telkom-1.

Launched on August 12, 1999 with a 15-year design life, the Indonesian satellite is presently 18 years old. The company had hoped to squeeze more operating life out of it until 2018 or 2019, however, before a replacement satellite could be launched.

To keep the geostationary belt relatively clean, satellite operators generally raise their older spacecraft to a "graveyard" above geostationary orbit at the end of their operational life. According to ExoAnalytic, Telkom-1 is now drifting, so it's not clear whether it will be able to be raised to this higher orbit.

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