DirecTV fears that one of its satellites in orbit might blow up soon, and it’s gearing up to move it to safety. Due to a problem with the satellite’s batteries, the satellite might burst apart at the end of February. If it did explode while in its current orbit, there's a chance it could damage active satellites nearby, which is why the company would like to get it out of the way.
The satellite on the verge of bursting is Spaceway-1, a vehicle built by Boeing launched in 2005, as first reported by Space News. Spaceway-1 has been orbiting along a path known as geostationary orbit, 22,000 miles above Earth. There, satellites match the orbit of the planet and appear to hover over the same patch of sky at all times. For most of its life, the satellite provided high-definition television coverage. But it has recently been used as a backup, so it hasn’t been providing any coverage for customers.
Apparently, something happened to the Spaceway-1 satellite in December that caused “irreversible” thermal damage to the vehicle’s internal batteries, according to a filing DirecTV sent to the Federal Communications Commission. Because of this damage, Boeing decided that the batteries could burst when they’re in use. DirecTV has been avoiding using the batteries by relying solely on Spaceway-1’s solar panels to gather power. But soon, the satellite will enter eclipse operations — when it is within Earth’s shadow — and the batteries will have to be used.
“Use of the batteries during eclipse is unavoidable and there is no ability to isolate damaged battery cells,” DirecTV wrote in its FCC filing. “The risk of a catastrophic battery failure makes it urgent that Spaceway-1 be fully de-orbited and decommissioned prior to the February 25th start of eclipse season.”
With eclipse season looming, DirecTV turned to the FCC to get permission to move the Spaceway-1 satellite earlier than planned. When it’s time for satellites in the geostationary belt to be retired, they’re moved to a higher orbit known as a graveyard orbit. Satellites in this area, 300 kilometers higher than geostationary orbit, are far enough removed that they are usually no longer a liability to active satellites. But in the case of Spaceway-1, making that move is complicated. Typically, satellites are supposed to get rid of all their propellant before they move to the graveyard orbit. But because of the explosion risk, DirecTV doesn’t have time to empty Spaceway-1’s tank entirely. The company noted in its filing that it could only remove a “nominal portion” of the 73 kilograms of propellant within the satellite and requested a waiver of the rule.
Ultimately, the FCC granted DirecTV this authority on January 19th. The company is also looking at other ways to minimize how much propellant is on board Spaceway-1 before it’s moved, according to the FCC.
In the meantime, none of DirecTV’s customers need to worry about this potentially explosive satellite. “This satellite is a backup and we do not anticipate any impacts on consumer service as we retire it,” AT&T, the parent company of DirecTV, said in a statement. “We are replacing it with another satellite in our fleet.”