DirecTV’s Spaceway 1 in graveyard orbit

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Spaceway 1, once the satellite industry’s most powerful and flexible Ka-band craft, is now safely in a so-called graveyard orbit.

Spaceway 1, also at the time the heaviest-ever satellite to be launched,  was acquired by DirecTV with a fascinating history behind it. The Spaceway system was planned to be a global Ka-band communications satellite and ordered by Hughes Space & Communications (via its Hughes Electronics and Hughes Network Systems sister businesses).

Those with long memories will perhaps remember that Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp bought a 34 per cent interest in Hughes Electronics (at the time mostly owned by General Motors) for $6 billion in 2003 and thus expand News Corp’s interest in satellite DTH/DBS broadcasting and DirecTV over the US. By 2006 Murdoch had agreed to sell its (then) 38.5 per cent holdings in DirecTV to Liberty Media. In return John Malone’s Liberty sold its 16.34 per cent holding in News Corp back to Murdoch.

Spaceway 1 was being built by Boeing while all this share activity was going on and launched in April 2005 from the Sea Launch platform by a Zenit rocket. The craft, while intended to help provide broadband connectivity was actually used by DirecTV to serve initially HD (and in particular DirecTV’s local into local TV services) and eventually 4K transmissions. It had a 12-year life span that it more than supplied (now almost 15 years).

More recently it had been used as a back-up craft but suffered thermal problems with its on-board batteries and DirecTV’s owners AT&T determined that there was a risk of an explosion, and thus it urgently started moving the satellite to a higher ‘graveyard’ orbit and some 500 kilometres and well above both the normal geostationary orbital arc and even higher than the usual graveyard positions.

Spaceway 1 is now safely in this higher orbit and deactivated although it will begin to tumble in orbit now that it is no longer stabilised.


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