A Large Satellite Appears To Be Breaking Up In Orbit

The satellite is circled in red, and the two fragments in green. Eric Berger/YouTube

A communications satellite in geostationary orbit may have broken apart, although details are still forthcoming about what has happened exactly.

Called AMC-9, the satellite belongs to satellite operator SES, based in Luxembourg. It orbits at a height of 36,000 kilometers (22,000 miles). Launched in 2003, it serves a variety of customers in the US and Mexico from its stationary position above the equator.

Over the weekend, a company called ExoAnalytic Solutions saw what appear to be fragments from the satellite after it rapidly brightened, raising fears it may be breaking apart following some sort of explosion on board.

"We have seen several pieces come off of it over the past several days," ExoAnalytic's CEO, Doug Hendrix, told Eric Berger at Ars Technica. "We are tracking at least one of the pieces. I would hesitate to say we know for sure what happened."

When pressed for comment by IFLScience, SES said they didn’t know what the state of the satellite currently was. On June 19, they announced that a “significant anomaly” had affected the satellite, and the company began transferring services to other satellites to minimize disruption to customers, which they completed one week later.

On June 29, two separate objects were seen near AMC-9, although it’s currently unclear if they are fragments from the satellite (although that seems likely). Two days later, SES was able to re-establish contact with the satellite, and they’re currently working out what to do next.

“The current assessment is that there is no risk of a collision with other active satellites,” they said in another statement, seen by SpaceNews. “Since the incident on 17 June 2017, AMC-9 has been slowly moving westwards with its payload disabled and not causing interference.”

You can see the satellite flash and begin to break apart around the 1:30 mark

This will, of course, raise some concerns about space junk in orbit. Such incidents are relatively rare, but not unheard of. In 2009, a US and Russian satellite collided, releasing huge amounts of debris into low-Earth orbit. In 2007, China intentionally blew up one of its own satellites with a missile, something they were heavily criticized for.

Geostationary orbit is a much bigger area than low-Earth orbit, so the effects of space junk are less severe. Nonetheless, having bits of uncontrollable debris floating around is not exactly ideal. Plus, in this orbit, debris experiences little atmospheric drag, meaning it will stay in this position for the foreseeable future unless we find a way to clean it up.

You might have heard of the Kessler syndrome, the idea that a chain reaction of debris creation could make some orbits unusable. That’s the premise for the movie Gravity. This incident is unlikely to be that severe. But at the very least it’s a blow to SES.

(H/T: Ars Technica, SpaceNews)

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