Zombie sat still on danger course
Written by Chris Forrester
Sunday, 09 May 2010 10:22

Intelsat’s giant Galaxy-15 satellite is still drifting uncontrollably, and remains on target to enter the orbital slot occupied by SES World Skies’ AMC-11. Its owners badly want the craft to die, and to cease transmissions, but it is refusing to listen to commands.

G-15 was probably hit by a solar flare more than a month ago on April 5 causing the satellite to lose contact with its Earth-bound controllers. Further attempts to make contact, including up to 200,000 telemetry messages, have failed. A last-ditch pulsed message, much more powerful than the others, was sent on May 3, but reportedly this also failed to make contact with the wayward satellite.

Intelsat and Luxembourg-based SES (which owns AMC-11) say they have been closely coordinating their interference-avoidance options. The two satellite operators have the benefit of knowing the precise drift of G-15 and say the satellite will enter AMC-11’s 131 degrees West orbital space on about May 23.

The risk of an actual collision is very, very small. Of far greater danger is that the “zombie” craft’s payload is still working at maximum wattage, and thus interfering with AMC-11’s own broadcasts starting in mid-May. This is now accepted as almost inevitable. SES says the company is looking at “various options to avoid or at least mitigate problems”.

SES World Skies will be switching its many customers to another satellite while G-15 passes by, which means a massive headache for all concerned – and expense. Nobody is talking yet of compensation for these costs but they are inevitable under the circumstances.

There’s also the very real impact on Intelsat, which looks like losing this satellite – and which is uninsured. This means a loss on the craft, built by Orbital Sciences and launched in 2001. With most satellite operators writing down their satellites value during the first 5-7 years of a craft’s life, this will likely not impact Intelsat’s balance sheet, the operator will have to bring forward investment and a satellite from its forward-planning schedule.

Intelsat will host a conference call on Wednesday May 12 at 11am (Washington time) to discuss latest results, and this problem.