Op-ed | Do we care about orbital debris at all?

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This op-ed originally appeared in the Jan. 15, 2018 issue of SpaceNews magazine.

Last year, in the space of a few months, four geostationary satellites failed in orbit. Each had reached, or exceeded, its design life. Each incident created, or posed a high risk of creating, debris that could endanger other satellites; debris that could linger for thousands of years.

This alarming string of failures didn’t stop the U.S. Federal Communications Commission — at the end of November — from authorizing SES to move its AMC-1 satellite and operate it until 2021, 10 years beyond its design life. No one objected, but someone should have, given last summer’s incidents:

  • June: SES lost control of AMC-9 (14 years old), which began drifting from its 83-degrees-west orbital slot. Reports suggest at least two pieces broke off of AMC-9. The satellite’s builder denies it and SES claims the debris pose little risk of collision with other satellites.
  • July: Twelve transponders suddenly failed on SES’s NSS-806 satellite (19 years old).
  • July: PT Telkom’s Telkom-1 (18 years old) appeared to explode and release thousands of pieces of debris at the 85.5-degrees-east orbital slot. The incident was caught on ground-based video.
  • July/August: The FCC authorized moving EchoStar-3 (20 years old) to a new geostationary position. On Aug. 2, EchoStar lost contact with the satellite, which began drifting across the geostationary arc — posing a collision risk to the satellites whose path it crossed. After a month, EchoStar regained contact, moving EchoStar-3 into a safe graveyard orbit.

That’s one outright disaster, two major malfunctions, and one harrowing near-miss.

SES’s NSS-806 satellite lost 12 of its transponders last summer. (Credit: SES)
SES’s NSS-806 satellite lost 12 of its transponders last summer. (Credit: SES)

All four satellites were at or beyond their 15-year design lives. Lockheed Martin built three of them. Two (EchoStar 3 and Telkom-1) used the venerable A2100 satellite bus, which has flown over 75 times since being introduced in 1996. Maybe that’s a coincidence, or maybe the issue really is about age.

The very first A2100 satellite is still operating. Launched in 1996, AMC-1 is already over 21 years old — ancient for a satellite. Yet just at the end of November, the FCC authorized SES to move AMC-1 to a new orbit (from 130.9 to 129.15 degrees west), extending its license until June 30, 2021 — for a total of 25 years, and 10 years beyond its design life. SES said it needed to move the satellite so that it could transition traffic to SES-15, to be launched next year. AMC-1 carries television programming (including educational programming) to cable system headends throughout North America.

AMC-1 isn’t just old. The original A2100 satellites lack a key safety feature the FCC began requiring in 2004: they cannot fully vent onboard fuel. So it’s critical that they’re moved to a graveyard orbit before operators lose control; dead satellites with pressurized tanks can, like Telekom-1, explode if something hits them, creating dangerous debris fields. SES’s application to the FCC did not discuss the age of the satellite, stating only that, according to SES’s calculations (satellites don’t actually have onboard fuel gauges), AMC-1 has enough fuel left to move orbits now and shift into a graveyard orbit at end of life in 2021.

An AGI visualization of the EchoStar-3 satellite that its operator moved to a graveyard orbit last year after regaining control of the drifting spacecraft. (Credit: AGI)
An AGI visualization of the EchoStar-3 satellite that its operator moved to a graveyard orbit last year after regaining control of the drifting spacecraft. (Credit: AGI)

This application should have set off alarm bells at the FCC — indeed, across the satellite industry. The A2100 may be an engineering marvel, but the fact that these satellites can operate beyond their design lives doesn’t mean it’s worth the risk to do so.

The FCC desperately needs a way to model and weigh the trade-offs at stake. Yes, it’s ultimately consumers who will bear the costs if satellite operators are forced to retire functioning satellites prematurely. But it’s also consumers — if not in the near future, then someday — who will bear the cost of satellites being damaged or destroyed by debris. In the worst case scenario, entire geostationary slots could simply be rendered unusable.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has promised to integrate better economic analysis across the commission’s work. Orbital debris would be a fine place to start, and the sooner the better. The FCC will be asked to grant additional license extensions for an aging generation of satellites. And right now, the agency doesn’t seem to know how to avoid a tragedy of the commons, or even recognize that it’s facing one.

James E. Dunstan is a space lawyer and senior adjunct fellow at TechFreedom, a Washington-based technology policy think tank.