Missed Opportunity Shines Light on Satellite Repurposing

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Artist's conception of the Russian Express-AM4 telecommunications satellite (Credits: EADS Astrium).

Russia deorbited the Express-AM4 communication satellite on March 25, despite pleas by startup company Polar Broadband Systems Ltd. to allow the wayward satellite to be put to a new use. The satellite reentered Earth’s atmosphere and landed in the Pacific Ocean.

“It was getting a lot of discussion,” says William Readdy, one of the startup’s principals. “For whatever reason, we couldn’t roll back their perceptions about radiation damage and collision risk.”

Express-AM4 had been stranded in an incorrect orbit since a launch failure in August 2011. Russian Satellite Communications Co. (RSSC) had examined and rejected several options to salvage the satellite before declaring it lost. They have already received insurance coverage for the satellite and ordered a replacement from manufacturer EADS Astrium.

An upper stage failure on a Proton-M stranded Express-AM4 in a useless orbit (Source: Roscosmos).

Polar Broadband submitted an unsolicited proposal to Roscosmos to repurpose the satellite. Their idea was to move Express-AM4 to a 51 degree orbit enabling it to provide communication services to scientists in Antarctica. Roscosmos rejected the idea, asserting that such an orbit would expose the satellite to damaging levels of radiation and pose a collision hazard to satellites in geosynchronous orbit. Officials have also said that the satellite had already potentially been radiation damaged from its seven month sojourn in a geosynchronous transfer orbit with regular passage through the van Allen belts.

Polar Broadband refuted such claims: “Neither of the rationales used for deorbiting Express AM 4 — radiation dose received while stranded in its transfer orbit or risk of collision with other satellites — were applicable to our Antarctic mission orbit,” company officials said. “The deorbit of the Russian satellite Express AM4 is a tremendous loss to the entire international scientific community and most particularly, those personally conducting scientific research in the harsh and unforgiving environment of the Antarctic.”

However, it is possible that the missed opportunity has accomplish something nevertheless. Polar Broadband hopes that they may have paved the way for future repurposing successes: “While we are disappointed in this outcome, we hope that the attention brought by our proposal will cause satellite owners to think more carefully about repurposing assets in the future when similar circumstances arise,” they said.

The video below explain’s how Polar Broadband would have relocated the satellite:

 

 

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One Response

  1. Michael Listner

    This was not a bad decision by the Russian Federal space agency. Unfortunately, the media has been focusing on what a waste de-orbiting this satellite was and ignoring the fact that there were significant legal considerations to re-purpose the satellite.

    Reply

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