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A TV Satellite With Damaged Batteries Is at Risk of Exploding

DirecTV has one month to vent some of the satellite's fuel and move it to a safe orbit.

by Becky Ferreira
27 January 2020, 5:22am

Concept art of a satellite in orbit. Image: Jose Luis Stephens/Eye Em

This article originally appeared on VICE US.

Spaceway-1, a television broadcast satellite owned by DirecTV, is at risk of exploding in space, according to a request filed by the company with the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

The satellite experienced a “major anomaly that resulted in significant and irreversible thermal damage to its batteries” in December, the filing said. If Spaceway-1 recharges its batteries, it could blow up, which would expose other satellites in its busy orbit to collisions with dangerous shards of debris. Such collisions could create even more space debris, which is a major concern for governments and companies around the world.

To manage this “heightened likelihood of catastrophic failure,” as it is described in the filing, DirecTV operators asked the FCC for permission to move Spaceway-1 into the so-called “graveyard orbit” about 180 miles above its current position.

Right now, the satellite is in geostationary orbit, a pathway about 22,000 miles above Earth’s surface with a particularly dense population of satellites.

DirecTV has to meet a sharp deadline to move and decommission its potential ticking time bomb in space. Spaceway-1 is currently on Earth’s sunny side so it can rely on its solar panels for power, leaving the explosive batteries undisturbed.

But it will enter Earth’s shadow on February 25, which marks the beginning of a period called the eclipse season that prevents dependence on solar power. The satellite will need to be put out to space pasture by then.

Normally, satellites prepare for disposal by venting any remaining propellant in their fuel tanks, a process that can take several months. The FCC said it would allow DirecTV to jettison only a small amount of the 160 pounds of fuel onboard the satellite so that it can make the deadline, according to The Verge.

It is not unusual for satellite operators to move spacecraft into safer orbits, even if on a temporary basis to avoid collision risks. In September, for instance, the European Space Agency commanded one of its Earth-observation satellites to dodge a SpaceX Starlink spacecraft.

These types of evasive maneuvers are necessary to prevent satellites crashing into each other, which would be a disastrous event that would spill dangerous wreckage into crowded orbits. The ultimate nightmare is a speculative situation known as the Kessler effect, in which crash debris sets off a cascade of escalating damage to other spacecraft, potentially rendering entire orbits unusable.

Spaceway-1 was launched in 2005 and is a few years beyond its projected mission duration. Since it is now only as a backup for other satellites, television coverage for DirecTV customers will not be affected by its sudden move to the orbital graveyard.

“This satellite is a backup and we do not anticipate any impacts on consumer service as we retire it," said AT&T spokesperson Jim Kimberly in an email to VICE. "We are replacing it with another satellite in our fleet.”

Update: This article has been updated to include comments from AT&T.

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