Due to a major anomaly in December of last year, a TV satellite built by Boeing and owned by DirecTV is inevitable going to explode in less than a month from now. Said anomaly caused irreversible thermal damage to the craft’s battery. Spaceway-1, as the satellite is called, is a geostationary satellite, launched into orbit in 2005 to provide high definition television coverage to customers, but has been out of active service for some time now.
A spokesperson from AT&T, the company that acquired DirecTV in 2015, reassured customers that service would not be affected due to this incident, (due to Spaceway-1 being a backup satellite). It is currently at a distance of 35,400 kilometers above the Earth’s surface, and to eliminate risk to other satellites caused due to Spaceway-1’s malfunction, the satellite will be moved to “graveyard orbit” (300 kilometers above its current orbit) where it can explode without affecting anything around it.
The Spaceway-1 was designed to work on solar power but also fitted with a backup battery. This is to enable the satellite to stay in geostationary orbit during “eclipse season”, when the spacecraft will stay in the Earth’s shadow for a lengthy period of time. Eclipse season begins February 25, 2020 and will force the satellite to run on battery power. Due to the thermal damage sustained by the battery, there is a high risk of explosion when it’s switched on.
This matter was brought to the U.S. Federal Communications Committee, which promptly cleared the satellite for immediate decommission to mitigate risk. Normally, a satellite requires all fuel on-board to be released before being decommissioned, but this is a lengthy process that can take several months to complete, depending on the amount of fuel left on board the satellite. Since Spaceway-1 doesn’t have enough time to follow through on this process, the FCC gave it permission to decommission when required.
Maybe. There are two identical satellites Spaceway-2 and Spaceway-3 that were launched around the same time as Spaceway-1 was, the second one also owned by DirecTV, while the third one is owned by Hughes Network Systems, which provides internet services to the residents of North America. Upon enquiry about the status of Spaceway-2 and 3, Richard Eposito (Boeing spokesperson) answered, “The malfunction was caused by a string of events unlikely to occur on other satellites.” Boeing will also provide DirecTV and Hughes Network Systems with updated operating procedures that will prevent such an issue from arising in the future.
Upon being asked the reason for Spaceway-1’s malfunction, Epsito refused to comment. AT&T announced that it would be replacing Spaceway-1 with another backup satellite in its fleet. Upon being probed whether the replacement satellite would be Spaceway-2, AT&T refused to comment.
Another possible contributor for this mishap is the fact that Spaceway-1 exceeded it’s intended service duration some time ago. These satellites are made to last roughly 10-12 years, and Spaceway-1 has been up for 14. Keeping old satellites in orbit runs the risk of them failing and increases chances of a malfunction.
This can lead to a situation where old satellites contribute to space debris by either being unable to be brought back to earth to be properly disposed of, or breaking down/fragmenting in orbit. Space debris is a looming issue that will need to be addressed sooner than later as it will create problems for future space launches. Space debris also interferes with gathering of data from observatories on Earth as it pollutes the night sky, making it harder to see what we actually intend to.