Aerospace & Defence

Satellite Lost In Orbit Can Pose Serious Threat to Operational Vehicles

Intelsat 29e, a satellite built by Boeing, failed while in orbit and was recently announced to be completely lost by satellite service provider Intelsat.

The repercussions of the lost Intelsat 29e, now an unmovable piece of debris in space, go beyond just financial losses. The satellite was built with a budget of US $400 and US $450 million, and its planned lifespan of 15 years was recently reduced to three years while in the geostationary orbit (GEO). The cause behind the satellite’s failure is still undetermined, although the team working together with Boeing believes that it may have occurred on 7th April 2019 when communication from the satellite was terminated. With all communication and maneuvering capabilities lost, the satellite could be a threat to operational vehicles in the same orbit.

Objects in the geostationary orbit, which is 22,000 miles above Earth’s surface, are not as affected by the Earth’s gravitational pull as satellites in lower orbit. Therefore, when a satellite fails in the GEO, it is essentially stuck there with no way of return. Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at Harvard and spaceflight tracker says, “It’s a big problem, because now basically you have a floating bomb in GEO.”

Operational satellites in GEO take 23 hours and 56 minutes to complete one rotation, however a stray satellite like Intelsat 29e will be moving faster, and will require less time to complete a rotation. “All the other GEO satellites are keeping pace with the Earth,” Jonathan McDowell explains, “So every day or so it’s going to move past another few satellites.”

However, the Intelsat 29e is rather bulky and weighs almost 14,000 pounds, which makes it easy to track through telescopes set up by the U.S. Department of Defense. Furthermore, Intelsat is also monitoring it closely in order to avoid close shaves with another operational satellites. If such an event were to occur, the Air Force will alert the operator of the functional vehicle to move it out of Intelsat 29e’s way for the time being.