More problems aboard Intelsat’s I-33 satellite

There are reports that Intelsat’s I-33 satellite is suffering another problem. What has been confirmed is that the satellite, launched in August 2016, has ‘lost’ about 3.5 years of its planned life in orbit. Intelsat is making a $78 million insurance claim because of the overall issues.

CEO Stephen Spengler in September 2016 said that I-33 had an initial problem with its primary thruster engine, and thus would take longer to get to orbit, and was expected to start work – in orbit – in early 2017. It had actually reached orbit a little earlier in December 2016 and had then undergone routine in-orbit tests and maneuvers and it was during these tests that the second problem manifested itself.

The first anomaly, and the need to use the spacecraft’s precious on-board fuel to raise it to its operational orbit, was originally expected to trim around 18 months from its anticipated lifetime. At the time industry officials talked of an insurance payout of some $40 million as compensation for the problem.

Now, however, there’s confirmation from Intelsat of another significant problem for the Boeing-built satellite.  Intelsat’s VP/Investor Relations, Dianne VanBeber in Twitter messages, and accompanying information, says that a second problem was identified back in February and shortly after the satellite had reached orbit (in December 2016) and had then undergone routine in-orbit tests and maneuvers and it was during these tests that the second problem manifested itself.

Space Intel Report (SIR), in its report on the problems, says that the I-33 satellite in suffering its second and more serious problem and which centres on the craft’s ability to maintain its crucial North/South attitude station-keeping. These maneuvers are evidently consuming more fuel than planned. North/South station-keeping is crucial to a satellite’s operation and especially in DTH transmissions.

The good news is that the satellite’s operational life will still be 11 or more years. Moreover, VanBeber stressed that a significant portion of the $78 million claimed in insurance had already been agreed with insurers and under-writers, and that Intelsat was in negotiation with insurers who had not yet paid their compensation.

Intelsat has also agreed to participate with Space Logistics’ and their ‘space tug’ robotic Mission Extension Vehicle which is designed to ‘rescue’ satellites in precisely this set of circumstances. The first rescue tug is scheduled for launch later in 2018.

As to any follow-on flights of the same Boeing-designed satellites, VanBeber told SIR that corrective measures had already been put in place and mitigation of any problems on the upcoming launches of I35e and I-37e.

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