Measat gives up on drifting satellite in a blow for insurers

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TAMPA, Fla. — Satellite insurers are bracing for a $45 million claim from Malaysian operator Measat, which plans to de-orbit Measat-3 after failing to return it to service. 

Measat said Aug. 6 it was unable to rescue the aging satellite despite maintaining continuous telemetry and command control since an anomaly first appeared June 21.

The operator and Measat-3’s manufacturer Boeing are still investigating the incident. 

Space tracking company ExoAnalytic Solutions said the issue caused the spacecraft to drift westward out of its 91.5 East orbital slot in geostationary orbit.

Launched on a Russian Proton rocket in December 2006, Measat-3 was nearing the end of its 15-year design life.

The key limiting factor in the life of a satellite with chemical propulsion is the amount of fuel onboard, needed for the frequent maneuvers it must make to stay in its orbital slot.

GEO satellites routinely have enough fuel to outlive their initial design life projections.

However, insurance sources said Measat-3 ran out of fuel earlier than Measat expected.

One underwriter said the operator “thought they’d get another two years out of it,” adding that there is sufficient fuel left to send the spacecraft to graveyard orbit, but not enough to continue its broadcast and telecoms services.

“We assume they are going to file an insurance claim, we don’t know for sure, and the claim would be based on the fact that they thought they had more fuel than they did,” the person added.

Measat confirmed Measat-3 was insured but declined to comment on its insurance policy.

The Malaysian company presumably would have had to present a health report on Measat-3 to insurers, including how much fuel it has, before renewing its in-orbit insurance for another year. 

Insurance market under strain

An insurance claim from Measat rumored to be around $45 million would push insurers deeper into the red.

The insurance sources contacted by SpaceNews put the size of claims so far this year at around $312 million, including Measat’s potential claim, versus a total market premium of about $238 million to date.

A claim following issues on the Maxar Technologies-built SXM-7 satellite, insured for $225 million, is the other big loss for insurers so far in 2021.

The space insurance market is on course to generate about $500 million in total premium this year, putting it at risk of another annual loss if there are additional in-orbit satellite or launch failures.

Space insurers paid out around $431 million in claims in 2020, according to data from insurance company AXA XL. 

Although the total market premium came in at about $452 million, the industry considers 2020 a loss-making year after salaries and other expenses.

It followed significant losses for the space insurance market in 2019 and 2018. 

Equipped with C-band and Ku-band transponders, Measat-3 covered more than 100 countries across Asia, Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

Measat said it migrated customers to other satellites in its fleet following the anomaly. 

The company said Aug. 6 it is finalizing a launch date for a replacement satellite called Measat-3d, built by Airbus Defence and Space, “for early 2022.”