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Failed Amazonas fall out

April 22, 2014

Amazonas 4A was launched on March 22nd (on an Ariane rocket with Astra 5B as its co-passenger). Unfortunately it soon emerged that the Hispasat-owned satellite was not working properly. Details are still sketchy but it seems the Orbital Sciences-built spacecraft had suffered a power subsystem malfunction which some sources suggest could be an undeployed solar array.

Hispasat itself say: “Hispasat and Orbital, the company responsible for the satellite’s construction, are looking into the possible cause of this anomaly and taking corrective action.” The statement added: “The satellite is currently secure in its geostationary orbit in the position where in orbit tests will be conducted.”

On April 17th during a scheduled quarterly conference call by Orbital Sciences, it emerged that engineers are working through a complex check-list to try and determine precisely what had happened. Orbital chairman and chief executive David Thompson described the problem on Amazonas 4A as a “partial electrical system failure” that occurred about two weeks ago. “If it cannot be fixed, this problem will likely reduce the transponder capacity of the satellite during its 15-year operational lifetime,” Thompson said, and implying that little could be done to rescue what now seems to be a permanent problem.

“We’re focused on two of the highly likely causes of the failure,” Thompson added. “One of those, although I don’t want to get into too much detail here, had to with something that was specific to the Amazonas 4A satellite that is not done on any prior or any current satellite in production.”

However, there’s an immediate loss to Orbital of its ‘performance incentive’ for the successful in–orbit launch, which will be about $13 million this year, although this compensation for Orbital was fully covered by insurance.

The question now is to determine the extent of the power problems. A solar array problem is bad enough, and will reduce the life and output of the planned 24 transponders. This, of course, is fully covered by insurance and in time a replacement satellite can be built and launched. But that takes time.  Meanwhile, Amazonas 4A had a demanding mission this summer in providing connectivity for the FIFA World Cup out of Brazil.  Hispasat say they have a back-up plan in place to help mitigate any shortfall in capacity.

Hispasat also has an option in place for another Amazonas-type satellite from Orbital Sciences, and on the conference call Thompson suggested that this option remained in place.

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