In Bad Orbit, Russian Sat Also May Have Communications Defect

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PONTE VEDRA, Fla. — The Russian space agency on Aug. 23 said ground teams have been unable to communicate with a large, European-built, Russian-owned telecommunications satellite launched into a bad orbit Aug. 18.

The statement from Roscosmos suggests that in addition to a bad launch provided by the Proton-Breeze M rocket, which released the Express-AM4 satellite far from its intended drop-off point, the satellite itself has a defective communications system that is unable to send or receive signals.

Roscosmos said flights of the Proton-Breeze M rocket have been suspended until a state-appointed board of inquiry determines the cause of what appears to be a problem in the Breeze M upper stage’s flight control system.

International Launch Services (ILS) of Reston, Va., which markets the Proton rocket to commercial customers worldwide, had scheduled the launch of two Proton vehicles in September for SES of Luxembourg and ViaSat of Carlsbad, Calif.

Express-AM4 was built by Astrium Satellites of Europe for the Russian Satellite Communications Co. (RSCC) of Moscow, Russia’s biggest telecommunications satellite fleet operator. The satellite was insured for $270.5 million, according to two insurers. One said the insurance policy has a top-off provision for an additional $30 million.

Astrium Satellites declined to comment Aug. 23 on the Express-AM4 situation.

One industry official said Express-AM4 had not deployed its solar panels and was relying only on battery power. This could not be independently confirmed. It was not immediately clear how long the satellite could remain functional in orbit using only its lithium-ion batteries.

The Roscosmos statement of Aug. 23 said Astrium and Roscosmos were continuing their attempts to establish communication with the satellite. If they succeed, and if the satellite is able to deploy its solar panels, ground teams will have time to determine whether its on-board fuel supply is sufficient to make it worthwhile to maneuver Express-AM4 into its intended orbit.

It is unclear whether such a maneuver will be attempted given how far the satellite is from its intended location in geostationary transfer orbit, and how much fuel would be used to get into operating position in geostationary orbit 36,000 kilometers over the equator.

Roscosmos, confirming data provided Aug. 19 by U.S. Air Force ground radars and also using data from Russian military ground sensors, said Express-AM4’s current orbit has an apogee of 20,294 kilometers and a perigee of 995 kilometers, with an inclination of 51.23 degrees relative to the equator.

The satellite was supposed to be delivered by the Breeze-M stage to an orbit with an apogee of 35,786 kilometers, a perigee of 5,210 kilometers and an inclination of 20.5 degrees.

“A joint working group has been established to explore possibilities for [transferring] the Express-AM4 to the design orbit and, if the onboard systems respond, subsequently using the satellite for its designated purpose,” Roscosmos said in its Aug. 23 statement. “Currently, specialists continue their attempts to re-establish contact with the satellite.”