I live in Seattle, Washington. While this blog is not restricted geographically, I am especially sensitive to space industry news that involves Boeing, a major local industry. Today, problems with a Boeing satellite which is no longer functioning.
It was recently revealed that a big broadcast satellite named Spaceway-1 which is owned by DirecTV, built by Boeing and operated by Intelsat experienced major damage to its batteries last December. The company said that the satellite batteries suffered “irreversible” thermal damage. Boeing fears that the batteries may burst when they are called upon to supply power while solar power is not available. DirecTV just made a special request to the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) this week for permission to bring Spaceway-1 down from its current orbit because if it explodes in that orbit, it may injure operating satellites in that orbit.
In the special request to the FCC, DirecTV wrote, “Spaceway-1 suffered a major anomaly that resulted in significant and irreversible thermal damage to its batteries. There is a significant risk that these battery cells could burst.” The satellite was launched in 2005. It is a Boeing 702-Model satellite that was intended to function for twelve years.
Boeing made a statement to CNBC which said, “The battery malfunction occurred in the course of beyond-contract-life operation after a collection of events that have a very low likelihood of occurring on other satellites.”
The Spaceway-1 has been orbiting in what is known as geosynchronous orbit twenty-two thousand miles above the surface of the Earth. Satellites in this orbit hover above a single location on Earth.
It appears that DirecTV is facing a time constraint in dealing with this situation. Boeing reviewed data from the satellite and said that batteries of Spaceway-1 “cannot be guaranteed to withstand the pressures needed to support safe operation of the spacecraft in eclipse operations.” Spaceway-1 is currently operating on solar power but it will pass into the shadow of the Earth on February which will cut off solar power. DirecTV said in the FCC filing that Spaceway-1 must be removed from orbit and decommissioned before then. “Use of the batteries during eclipse is unavoidable and there is no ability to isolate damaged battery cells,” DirecTV wrote in its FCC filing. “The risk of a catastrophic battery failure makes it urgent that Spaceway-1 be fully de-orbited and decommissioned prior to the February 25th start of eclipse season.” In addition, the satellite must get rid of its remaining fuel in order to reduce the possibility of an accidental explosion.
AT&T (the owner of DirecTV) has told CNBC that it intends to replace Spaceway-1with another satellite from its fleet of satellites. In their statement, they said, “We do not anticipate any impacts on consumer service as we retire it.”
Until December, the Spaceway-1 served as a back-up to provide television coverages to its customers in Alaska. Boeing says that it intends to lower risks for other 702-Model communication satellites. It will supply “affected customers with a minor update to operating procedures that will allow them to avoid a similar malfunction going forward.”