Intelsat IS-29e dead, but still dangerous

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Intelsat’s IS-29e mid-Atlantic satellite is dead and has been declared a total loss. The satellite is not insured. A special Failure Review Board will attempt to determine what went wrong with the expensive (around $400 million) Boeing-built craft on April 7th, and will also compare possible similar problems with those that affected a previous Intelsat ‘Epic’ satellite.

In essence, the IS-29e suffered at least one major propellant leak, and subsequent efforts to correct and restore the satellite to normal working resulted in a total failure. The previous problem on IS-33e also suffered propellant anomalies on its thruster system which cut the in-orbit life of the satellite by about 3.5 years.

The challenge now is that IS-29e is spinning out of control, and in an increasingly elliptical orbit which could pose problems to other satellites in the geostationary arc. Observations made by ExoAnalytic Solutions showed the propellant leaking into space, and also indicated the craft possibly breaking up.

The satellite is also moving slightly faster than nominal and is ‘overtaking’ other satellites in its path. Ground-based technicians controlling other satellites in the path of IS-29 are able to compensate for any possible risk by slightly raising or lowering the orbits of their satellites and thus avoiding collision. Intelsat itself is very closely monitoring the precise path and location of IS-29 and will be alerting other operators of any threat.

“Since the anomaly, Intelsat has been in active contact with affected customers,” the global satellite operator said in a statement. “Restoration paths on other Intelsat satellites serving the region and third-party satellites have been provided for a majority of the disrupted services. Migration and service restoration are well underway, highlighting the resiliency of the Intelsat fleet and the benefit of the robust Ku-band open architecture ecosystem,” the statement added.

Further threats could come from broken off parts that are too small to be tracked but could pose very real dangers to other orbital satellites.

However, IS-29e is now totally out of control, and could stay that way for years to come. Intelsat and Boeing say they will continue to send telemetry up to the satellite, just in case they can re-boot the craft.


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