DirecTV is rushing to move one of its satellites to a higher orbit due to the likelihood it will go boom, pow, kablam, rattle-rattle-bang, Space News reported on Wednesday.
Backup High Power Model 702 satellite Spaceway-1 weighs around 13,400 pounds (6,080 kilograms) and was previously used to directly broadcast high-definition TV “from its orbital slot at 102.8 degrees west longitude,” Space News wrote, and more recently was demoted to providing backup Ka-band capacity in the Alaska region. DirecTV told the Federal Communications Commission in a December filing that due to an unexplained incident, Spaceway-1's batteries suffered “significant and irreversible thermal damage” and now pose a potentially “catastrophic” risk of going blammo in February, when the craft will pass into the Earth’s shadow and automatically switch from solar power to battery backup. While Spaceway-1's broadcasting capabilities have been switched off, there’s no way of preventing it from trying to draw power from damaged cells, according to the company.
DirecTV told the FCC it was “urgent that Spaceway-1 be fully de-orbited and decommissioned prior to the February 25th start of eclipse season.” If Spaceway-1 does go bleep-bip-bip-bleep-bip-bip-BLAM at its current position in the geostationary arc, the resulting debris could wham into other satellites, which themselves could go thunk. (Note that because there is no sound audible to humans in space, these noises are for illustrative purposes only.)
For that reason, DirecTV wants to raise Spaceway-1 around 186 miles (300 kilometers) into what is called the graveyard orbit, where procedures can be undertaken to help prevent retired satellites from interfering with those still in operation. (Low Earth orbit satellites are usually disposed of by descent into the atmosphere, or de-orbiting; as Ars Technica noted, it’s unclear why DirecTV used that term if it is actually raising the craft.) Satellite operators are usually required to vent any remaining fuel on the craft before de-commissioning it to reduce the risk of future kablooeys. But DirecTV wrote in the FCC filing that while similar spacecraft undergoing the procedure normally take “two to three months of continuous operations to fully deplete their bipropellant systems,” it only has around a month to do the job. That means it will only be able to vent a “nominal” amount of the 160 pounds (73 kg) of remaining fuel, which was originally intended to last until 2025, according to the filing.
No customers should see any service go zzz... zzz... zzz... due to Spaceway-1 already being downgraded to backup mode before its Ka-band capacity was turned off. If it still does thwomp in the graveyard orbit, it will do so with reduced “potential for harms to other geostationary satellite operators,” DirecTV wrote.
Update: 8:00 p.m. ET: In a statement to Gizmodo, an AT&T spokesperson wrote: “This satellite is a backup and we do not anticipate any impacts on consumer service as we retire it. We are replacing it with another satellite in our fleet.”
Correction: The first line of this piece said that the satellite was being moved to a lower orbit. As mentioned in the text below, it’s actually being raised. We regret the d’oh.