Another Satellite May Have Broken Apart In Earth Orbit

A satellite in orbit. Johan Swanepoel/Shutterstock

A satellite called Telkom-1 appears to be breaking apart in geostationary orbit, the second satellite to do so in three months.

The satellite is owned by Indonesia, and orbits at a height of 36,000 kilometers (22,400 miles) above Earth. On August 26, it was revealed that the satellite’s antenna was pointing in the wrong direction, halting communications. Telkom Indonesia recently referred to this as an “anomaly” in a statement.

But US firm ExoAnalytic Solutions found that the issue may be more serious. Using data from its 165 ground-based optical telescopes, it found that the satellite appears to be breaking apart. They observed a large cloud of debris around the satellite, following a loss of contact on August 25.

“There were definitely several larger pieces that we can track individually,” Doug Hendrix, ExoAnalytic Solutions CEO, told SpaceNews. “The question is: was there a cloud of very small pieces, too? That is what we are trying to figure out.”

A video that appears to show the satellite breaking up

At the moment they think the satellite did not collide with another object. But observations show the satellite to be in a rapid tumble following the event, suggesting something pretty major happened – perhaps an onboard explosion.

On August 30, the satellite was said to no longer be recoverable. ExoAnalytic Solutions are continuing to track debris from the satellite, to try and work out what happened.

Telkom-1 is a communications satellite. It was launched in 1999, and had enough fuel to last until 2019. Normally, spacecraft in geostationary orbit are raised into a higher graveyard orbit at the end of their life, to prevent them from littering a useful area of Earth orbit.

As mentioned, this is the second such event in three months. In late June, the satellite AMC-9 – operated by SES in Luxembourg – also appeared to break apart. A brightening of this satellite was observed, and then two fragments were spotted nearby. In August, a satellite called EchoStar-3 also went dark.

Satellites failing in orbit are not unusual, but the timing of all these events together is perhaps a little bit coincidental. There certainly doesn’t seem to be any foul play at hand, but this serves as a reminder that space can be an unforgiving environment when something goes wrong.

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