Two expensive satellites in geostationary orbit now appear to have suddenly and inexplicably broken apart.
On August 26, the Indonesia based, state-owned satellite operator PT Telkom disclosed an "anomaly" in the pointing of its satellite in geostationary orbit. Company officials said that although they and contractor Lockheed Martin expected to restore service to the satellite, they were moving customers to another satellite as a precautionary measure.
However, new evidence gathered by a US-based firm that tracks objects in geostationary orbit, ExoAnalytic Solutions, suggests the satellite may be falling apart.
"What you see there appears to be a lot of reflective materials emanating from the spacecraft," ExoAnalytic's chief executive officer, Doug Hendrix, told Ars in an exclusive interview. "They could be solar panels, fuel, or other debris. We don’t really know."
This is the second satellite in about two months to experience such an issue in geostationary orbit, a location about 36,000km above the planet where satellites can easily maintain their position over a fixed point on Earth. On the morning of June 17, the Luxembourg-based satellite operator SES lost at least partial control of a large satellite in geostationary space. ExoAnalytic has observed fragments of the AMC-9 satellite, too.
The company is tracking about 2,000 objects in geostationary orbit, some as small as about 20cm. Of these, about one-quarter are satellites—a mix of military, weather, and communications assets—and the rest is debris. An uncontrolled debris event at geostationary orbit is relatively rare, although there are concerns that they may be coming more common with more satellites in this valuable real estate.
To keep the geostationary belt relatively clean, satellite operators generally raise their older spacecraft to a "graveyard" above geostationary orbit at the end of their operational life. According to ExoAnalytic, Telkom-1 is now drifting, so it's not clear whether it will be able to be raised to this higher orbit.
The Indonesian satellite's internal camera sent this image back to Earth just before going off line.