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Intelsat’s lost satellite: What lessons for the future?

April 26, 2019

Last week Intelsat declared its IS-29e as a “total loss”. Analysts at Northern Sky Research (NSR) said that writing off 12 years of near-guaranteed revenue (and adding 6552 kgs of space debris to the crucially important geostationary orbital arc) is an overall bitter pill for Intelsat. The satellite was not insured.

NSR said that while this particular craft might have been a true catastrophic loss and not salvageable, there are plenty of other instances where a satellite has a problem that is curable despite it being in orbit.

“Organisations such as Northrop Grumman and Effective Space work towards making In-Orbit Servicing a reality, incidents like Intelsat 29e demonstrate the need and opportunity for this market. The initial In-Orbit Demonstration (IOD) missions, while focused on life extension, are also a gateway to various other In-Orbit Servicing applications with differing levels of complexity that could curtail losses from similar mishaps in the future,” says NSR.

NSR added that Life Extension is just one type of service likely to emerge from these developments, and worth an estimated 59 per cent of ‘work in orbit’. Other tasks include Satellite Relocation (8 per cent), Salvage (17 per cent), Deorbiting of satellites (5 per cent) and Robotics (11 per cent).

NSR analyst Shagun Sachdeva commented: ‘Salvage’ is a highly opportunistic market with different mission possibilities, and therefore the biggest challenge is to have immediate availability of a servicer. “Based on the mission profile, it can be a challenging business case for both the satellite operator as well as the [rescue tug] provider due to factors such as high delta-V requirements, extremely long idle time and lack of enough useful life to justify needing the service. This makes both – the addressable market as well as the supply for these missions – highly restricted. However, the potential benefits also raise the pricing tolerances and allows the service to be offered at premium prices.”

One optimistic suggestion from NSR is that despite Intelsat IS-29e being a total loss, it could end up being a ‘donor’ of parts.  “Any useable and valuable components from an otherwise non-operational satellite could be recycled, thereby making up for losses, to certain extent. The supply pool of salvageable components is in fact not just limited to failed satellites but all satellites that are either retired or nearing end of life,” says NSR.

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