Op-ed | How to avoid another Telkom-1

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The recent failure of PT Telkom’s 18-year-old Telkom-1 satellite highlighted the risk associated with prolonged operations of aging satellites. Announced as a pointing anomaly on August 26, the incident may indeed be much more serious than initially thought. As video evidence collected by ExoAnalytic Solutions suggest, the satellite is seemingly breaking apart, leaving behind a track of reflective material.

The incident caused an expensive disruption of services. According to Reuters, about 15,000 ground terminals used by government agencies, banks, and broadcasters were cut out. The electronic payment industry was hit particularly hard, as thousands of ATMs and electronic card payment machines went offline, affecting the transactional infrastructure that makes commerce possible. A complete restoration of the service may take two weeks or more, so it is still early to get a complete estimate of the economic damage.

What happened to Telkom-1 is not a design issue. The satellite is based on the venerable Lockheed Martin A2100 satellite bus, one of the most successful platforms in the market. With nearly 50 satellites in over 20 years, the A2100 has proven its value beyond any doubt.

Luca Rossettini D-Orbit
Luca Rossettini, founder and CEO, D-Orbit. Credit: D-Orbit

Telkom-1 has been in service for 18 years. Its design lifetime was 15. As with any machinery, the passage of time impacts both performance and reliability. Operators are usually concerned about the former, but they should be equally concerned with the latter.

According to ExoAnalytics, the Telkom-1 event generated a large cloud of debris. Over time, this debris cloud will drift to intersecting orbital planes, and cause an increase in the frequency of costly debris-avoidance maneuvers for satellites in geosynchronous orbit. These maneuvers can cause a significant disruption of service that may be shorter than the one described above, but very expensive and consequential nevertheless.

Now consider that the geosynchronous belt is the orbit of choice for communications, television broadcasting, and weather forecasting satellites. The civil, defense, and intelligence applications of these satellites are the kind of services that are necessary to run a country. A disruption in these kinds of service may have expensive — even catastrophic — consequences.

On Earth, cars and vehicles in general are required by law to pass a test every couple of years to determine their reliability. The details of the test change slightly from country to country, but they follow similar guidelines. If the vehicle cannot guarantee a safe driving environment, it is retired and properly disposed.

It is time to introduce similar regulations for satellites. Nowadays, the decision to decommission a satellite is up to the operator, which relies on the estimate of propellant and on consultations with the manufacturer. Economic considerations connected to the cost of procuring and launching a replacement always weigh in, while preserving and ensuring an optimal space environment for current and future satellites is not always a priority.

Satellites are actually “space vehicles.” A lack of reliability can create dangerous scenarios for other vehicles and, ultimately, for people and assets on Earth. Operators should be required to keep their satellite’s health and reliability parameters within a range that guarantees it is indeed safe to operate, and that it can be safely disposed in case of a major malfunction. Regulations should impose decommissioning to graveyard orbit and a complete passivation of the vehicle if it does not pass the test.

Insurance providers already verify a satellite’s subsystems health status and reliability before issuing coverage for the following year of operations. A similar procedure could be done to ensure that events similar to the Telkom-1 incident will not happen again.

While the idea of a vehicle inspection for satellites may impose a higher short-term cost, it will indeed push the whole satellite industry to devise innovative technology, enabling the creation of a new generation of safer and more reliable satellites. Eventually, this strategy is backed up by a solid economic rationale if we want to keep the space business sustainable in the long run.

Luca Rossettini is the founder and CEO of D-Orbit, an expert at the Space Advisory Group of the European Commission, a board member of AIPAS (a space SME industrial association) and a board member of Confindustria Florence. He is an aerospace engineer with a Ph.D. in advanced space propulsion, concluded with honors at Politecnico di Milano. He holds a masters degree in Strategic Leadership Towards Sustainability, and a Certificate in Technology Entrepreneurship from Santa Clara University, California. After an internship position at NASA Ames Research Center, Rossettini went back to Italy and founded D-Orbit in 2011.