Emergency disposal maneuver okayed for satellite at risk of exploding
DirecTV has been granted permission by the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to send a damaged communications satellite in danger of exploding into an emergency disposal trajectory. The Boeing-built Spaceway-1 direct-broadcast satellite suffered a "major anomaly" last month that caused severe thermal damage to its batteries and must now be moved to an orbit where it will not pose a hazard to other spacecraft.
Orbiting space debris is a major and growing hazard and there has been a great deal of effort in recent years to both clean up dead satellites and to minimize the production of more debris. This not only includes the building of tougher spacecraft that won't shed bits and pieces but also making sure that damaged satellites are properly disposed of before they become a threat.
According to documents filed by DirecTV with the FCC, the 13,400-lb (6,080-kg) Spaceway-1, which is in a geosynchronous orbit 35,800 km (22,200 mi) above the Earth's equator, was damaged by an unspecified event in December 2019. Telemetry from the satellite was examined by Boeing engineers who concluded that the batteries on the 702-model satellite had suffered significant and irreversible damage.
Normally, this would not be a problem because Spaceway-1 is solar-powered and has enough capacity to avoid using the batteries. However, the satellite is approaching the season when it will periodically pass into the Earth's shadow. The concern is that the temporary switch to batteries will place the cells under such stress that they could explode – turning Spaceway-1 into a cloud of shrapnel circling the planet at hypersonic speed.
To prevent this from happening and avoid danger if it does, will use the remaining fuel on the satellite to move it into a disposal orbit 300 km (190 mi) above its present position, where it will be decommissioned and vent as much from its propellant tanks as possible – the move is expected to take 21 days, while the propellant venting will last seven days. It will need to be completed before February 21 when the next eclipse season begins.