Astra 5A out of control

There’s increasing concern about Astra 5A, declared a total loss by its owners on Jan 16. There are major worries that other satellites might have to be moved out of orbit to avoid collision.

Astra 5A, despite a problem in October (that was almost certainly related) had performed well recently. Satellite builders Thales Alenia say that Astra 5A experienced an abnormal event that led to a spacecraft attitude disturbance. They attempted to recover the craft on Jan 15 and in so doing used up almost all of the satellite’s on-board station-keeping fuel.

Reportedly, what followed were several “chaotic” hours of hard work as the team attempted to keep the satellite’s solar panels focused towards the sun in an attempt to re-charge its batteries. Those manoeuvres failed and the satellite went into an uncontrollable spin, but the situation could not be remedied.

The problem now is that Astra 5A is slowly drifting East. Other satellite operators have been informed. The first two satellites in its path are owned by Intelsat, their Galaxy 11 at 32.8 degrees E and which experts say would not have to be moved. Close satellite monitoring is also taking place at Intelsat 802 at 32.9 deg East, and it is possible that Intelsat will have to perform a manoeuvre to avoid an orbital catastrophe.

Paris-based Eutelsat is also potentially affected (at 36 and 36.1 deg East) but according to a Space News report Eutelsat is aware of the problem and says its craft will not be affected.

The news prompted a note from investment bankers Morgan Stanley. They say that they estimate that Astra 5A was using 5 or 6 transponders at 31.5 deg East, or some 2.4% of the fleet total. “The craft was nearly at the end of its depreciation life (December 2010) and had a book value of around €15 million. We think this is too small to expect any insurance claim, so there will likely be a write-off to depreciation which will not be offset. However, this is one-off in nature,” said the bank.