Aimee Fanter, JD ’21, GSLC Research Council Member – February 14, 2020
Dangers in Space
Space is a dangerous environment. Events such as ionizing radiation storm and orbital debris pose a threat not only to Earth, but to space objects as well. The potential hazards of an exploding satellite are monumental. We, as a society, largely depend on satellites. From everyday use of GPS to watching television services, we depend on satellites daily. Safety guidelines and protocols are needed in space to ensure the protection of satellites.
History in Space
In December 2019, DirecTV made history in space. We all know DirecTV as the American direct broadcast satellite service that transmits to millions of households in the United States, Latin America, and the Caribbean. With a fleet of satellites in orbit, DirecTV has asked for special permission to move a single satellite from its orbital slot due to the likely event it will shortly explode.
The satellite in question is Spaceway-1, a satellite launched in 2005 to provide back-up capacity to customers in Alaska. According to a statement by DirecTV’s parent company, AT&T, no service interruptions are expected and a replacement satellite will be issued. An FCC filing by DirecTV states that Spaceway-1 suffered “irreversible” damage to its batteries in December, 2019.
Spaceway-1 is powered by both solar panels and a battery for when the satellite is not being powered by the sun. Spaceway-1’s batteries were shut off soon after the malfunction discovery. DirecTV experts state that once the batteries turn back on at the end of February 2020, the batteries are likely to explode. Action is being taken in the hopes that Spaceway-1 will not explode while in orbit. DirecTV has asked special permission to propel the satellite into a “graveyard” orbit and terminate it ahead of schedule.
Is DirecTV’s request for terminating Spaceway-1 usual behavior? The short answer to this is no. DirecTV’s special permission is “special” due to the fact Spaceway-1 will not be consuming all fuel sources when it reaches a graveyard orbit. Normally, satellites are required to consume all fuel sources before terminating to a graveyard orbit. This will help ensure leftover fuel does not accidentally ignite and explode, causing a domino effect of orbital debris striking satellite after satellite.
Will the movement of DirecTV, and potentially other satellite companies in the future, be considered a legal challenge in the eyes of US laws? What we are witnessing currently is an emergency response to safely dispose of Spaceway-1. The number of satellites in orbit is expected to rise exponentially over the years, and it is paramount to keep the space environment safe. It is too soon to tell if this response is the emergence of a new practice in the space industry.