Friday, May 7, 2010

"Zombiesat" On The Loose!

Bad satellite! Last month, the Galaxy 15 communications satellite stopped responding to commands from Earth. After a month of attempts to regain control, operators finally got desperate and attempted to shut down the satellite's electronics completely.

It didn't work.

Now, a month after it first stopped working properly, Galaxy 15 is still in an out-of-control orbit that will eventually take it into orbits occupied by other satellites. Right now, if the Galaxy 15 stays on its expected course, it will be approaching another satellite, the AMC-11 communications satellite, and massive interference could result, at least according to AMC-11's operators. Unfortunately, sending radio signals to kill Galaxy 15 could also zap nearby satellites, too. So forget the two week window when the satellites pass.

After Galaxy 15 passes by AMC-11 in early June, it should be headed for a region of space devoid of other communications satellites until around early July, which should give operators some time to come up with another plan to try and shut down the rogue space vehicle. So far though, Galaxy 15 operators admit that they don't have a solution.

According to satellite experts, a runaway satellite operating at full payload like Galaxy 15 is currently doing is unprecedented in the history of space exploration. Intelsat, which operates Galaxy 15, is already soliciting outside advice to try and come up with a solution to the runaway satellite problem.

The good news is that, given enough time, the satellite could shut itself down as it loses Earth-orientation. When that happens, the satellite should also lose its lock on the Sun, which means that its power-generating solar panels will have no energy coming in and the batteries can't be charged. Once that happens, the satellite will power down and any risk for electronic interference with other satellites will end.

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