PARIS – The Italian Defense Ministry lost control of its Sicral-1 military telecommunications satellite in October and was forced to let the satellite drift from its orbital position for several weeks while ground teams grappled to return it to service, according to Italian and other European government officials.
The satellite, which is part of a three-nation contribution to provide telecommunications to the NATO alliance under a long-term contract, was given up for lost by Italy’s partner governments before being brought back to at least partial operating status, officials said.
“We frankly thought the satellite was permanently lost – one day it just stopped providing service,” one European government official said. “It was a confused situation because we really didn’t know what was going on.”
In response to Space News questions, the Italian joint defense staff issued a statement Jan. 10 confirming that Sicral-1 had lost attitude control in October, with a corresponding loss of its ability to maintain telecommunications links to NATO.
The statement says the likely cause of the failure was intense solar activity during the period, which caused an electrostatic discharge on board the satellite, disrupting the on-board electronics.
“In this specific case, the phenomenon, which was particularly intense, affected the performance of a motor that controls the satellite,” the statement says. “The control center then worked to restore the functions of the satellite. In this context, the occasion was used to perform maintenance and a software modernization on the satellite, which is at the halfway point in its scheduled operating life.”
Government and industry officials said Sicral-1, launched in February 2001 and designed to operate for at least 10 years, is stationed at 16.2 degrees east but began drifting eastward in October. The satellite moved past the 17-degree location before being stabilized, and then slowly moved back to its original position in December.
Sicral is designed to provide communications to fixed and mobile terminals, including units on Italian fighter aircraft. It is
‘s first military satellite.
The Italian Defense Ministry statement, issued by Navy Capt. Roberto Tomsi, deputy chief public information offer at the joint defense staff in
, does not specify how long the satellite was without proper attitude control, or whether it was brought back into control and subjected to the software maintenance before returning to its assigned slot.
“The entire operation, including the control of the satellite and assuring full functionality of all the equipment, required a period of approximately a month, and ended with the satellite being brought back to a condition of normal operations,” the statement says. “The Sicral management and control center employed by the military staff were supported by Alcatel Alenia Space-Italy, Selex and Telespazio.”
has partnered with
to provide the NATO alliance with secure super high frequency (SHF) and ultra high frequency (UHF) satellite telecommunications.
‘s contribution is the Skynet 4 and, especially, the two Skynet 5 satellites to be launched in 2007.
is providing the Sicral 3A and 3B spacecraft, both of which are in orbit.
As part of the NATO contract,
will launch its Sicral 1b satellite as soon as possible. The spacecraft, identical to Sicral 1, is in final testing at Alcatel Alenia Space and will be ready for launch this autumn, Alcatel Alenia Space officials say.
Finding a launch immediately will not be easy. Industry officials say Sicral 1b managers let slip a low-cost launch aboard a Russian Proton rocket by letting a launch option expire. Proton, whose non-Russian launches are managed by of McLean, Va., is now showing a full manifest for 2007.
A launch as a dual passenger aboard a European Ariane 5 rocket remains a possibility, but there, too, the manifest for 2007 is full. In addition, a dual launch aboard an Ariane 5 would mean Sicral, based on an old Alcatel Alenia Space platform, will have no more than 10-12 years of in-orbit life. A dedicated launch would place the satellite in a more-favorable transfer orbit that could provide more than 20 years of service, industry officials say.
are discussing whether to combine the requirements for a new-generation Sicral satellite, called Sicral 2, with the French Syracuse 3C satellite, with a single platform carrying payloads for both nations. A decision is expected by mid-year.