An out-of-control spacecraft is drifting in the geostationary orbit threatening to damage operational satellites

Failed satellite threatens to wreak havoc in geostationary orbit

A failed Russian satellite tumbling uncontrollably in space is threatening to damage operating spacecraft in geostationary orbit.

The Yamal-201 communications satellite owned by Gazprom Satellite Systems used to provide direct to home television in Russia, but was hit by a string of technical problems in early June. After its transponder stopped operating and all communication was lost, speculations appeared that the 11-year old spacecraft, expected to be retired next year, had completely failed.

However, Gazprom Space Systems hasn't officially commented on the situation.

According to a source familiar with the situation, the now dead spacecraft is tumbling in space, slowly slipping westwards from its orbital position at 90 degrees of eastern longitude and would eventually reach an area at about 75 degrees East that is populated with geostationary satellites of global operators.

Among companies who have their satellites in the area at risk is Thailand’s Thaicom, India’s communications and weather satellite INSAT-2E and satellites of European satellite communications companies Intelsat and Inmarsat.

According to the E&T source, the unresponsive satellite drifts about 0.025 degrees per day. It will therefore take about 400 days before it reaches the critical zone, meaning spacecraft operators will have enough time to figure out how to protect their assets.

The situation bears certain resemblance to the catastrophic 2009 collision between an operational US satellite owned by Iridium and dead Russian military communications satellite Cosmos. The incident resulted in complete destruction of both satellites, creating about a thousand dangerous fragments that remained circling the Earth at high velocities. The Iridium - Cosmos collision highlighted the importance of introducing policies to tackle the intensifying issue of space debris.

In the case of satellites in the busy geostationary ring, operators usually seek to raise spacecraft at the end of their life time to the so called graveyard orbit few hundred kilometres above the geostationary orbit.

Such a measure is enough to protect operating spacecraft from possible damage caused by out-of-control spacecraft.

The Yamal 201 satellite was manufactured by Russia’s aerospace company Energia and launched in 2003. Shortly after the spacecraft’s failure in June, the controllers switched off its transponders and moved customers to other satellites operating as part of the Gazprom Space System’s fleet.

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