Solar array problem killed Venezuela’s VeneSat-1, officials confirm

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WASHINGTON — Venezuela confirmed its first and only government-operated communications satellite, VeneSat-1, suffered a mission-ending failure that its Chinese builder blamed on a solar array problem. 

Satellite trackers at U.S. companies AGI and ExoAnalytic Solutions on March 13 spotted VeneSat-1 tumbling in an unusual orbit above the geostationary arc. 

On March 25, after SpaceNews reported the apparent satellite failure, Venezuela’s ministry of science and technology acknowledged the loss of VeneSat-1 but did not provide a cause. 

However, Fu Zhiheng, executive vice president of China Great Wall Industry Corp., which built VeneSat-1 for the Venezuelan government, told SpaceNews the satellite suffered a solar array drive assembly problem that resulted in VeneSat-1’s failure and emergency relocation effort. 

Drive assemblies point a satellite’s solar arrays at the sun to provide power. A failure of both drive assemblies can leave a satellite operator with just hours of battery power to retire its spacecraft before it becomes inoperable, according to an industry source familiar with satellite designs. Geostationary satellites are typically retired into so-called graveyard orbits high enough to prevent them from posing a hazard to operating satellites. 

VeneSat-1’s operators performed two maneuvers March 13 to relocate the ailing satellite above the geostationary belt, a popular orbit roughly 36,000 kilometers above the equator. 

The first maneuver stretched VeneSat-1’s orbit from circular to elliptical, with a high point, or apogee, about 525 kilometers above the geosynchronous arc, Bill Therien, ExoAnalytic Solutions vice president of engineering, said by email. A second maneuver followed three hours later that raised its low point, or perigee, by 50 kilometers, he said. VeneSat-1 began tumbling shortly after that second maneuver, he said. 

Therien described the orbit as “not typical,” but still high enough to steer clear of active spacecraft. A nominal graveyard orbit is circular and at least 300 kilometers above the geosynchronous arc, he said. 

VeneSat-1 was China Great Wall’s third satellite based on its DFH-4 platform but only the first to operate past its infancy. The first DFH-4 satellite, SinoSat-2, failed shortly after launch in 2006 because its solar arrays never fully opened. The second DFH-4 satellite, NigComSat-1, failed in 2008 because of problems with its solar array drive assemblies. 

More than a dozen DFH-4 satellites have launched since then without reported issues. But the first high-capacity DFH-4E satellite, ChinaSat-18, failed last year from a power failure shortly after launch.

An industry source said VeneSat-1’s failure appears to have had no impact on the launch schedule for Nusantara-2, an Indonesian satellite based on a DFH-4 platform scheduled for April on a Long March 3B rocket.

VeneSat-1 failed three years before its expected end of life. The satellite, also called the Simon Bolivar satellite, provided television broadcasting and broadband connectivity services.