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Out Of Control Satellite Threatens US TV Service

May 12, 2010

Communications company Intelsat said on Tuesday that a TV communications satellite is drifting out of control thousands of miles above the Earth, threatening to wander into another satellite’s orbit and interfere with cable programming across the U.S.

The satellite’s owners said it lost control of the Galaxy 15 satellite on April 5, most likely because the satellite’s systems were knocked out by a solar storm.  Intelsat cannot remotely steer the satellite to remain in its orbit, so Galaxy 15 is slowly making its way toward the adjacent path of another TV communications satellite that serves U.S. cable companies.

Galaxy 15 continues to receive and transmit satellite signals, and they are expected to possibly overlap and interfere with signals from the second satellite known as AMC 11 around May 23.

SES World Skies said that AMC 11 receives digital programming from cable television channels and transmits it to all U.S. cable systems from its orbit 22,000 miles above the equator.  It operates on the same frequencies as Galaxy 15.

“That fact means that there is likely to be some kind of interference,” Yves Feltes, a spokesman for AMC 11 owner SES World Skies, told The Associated Press (AP). “Our aim is to bring any interference down to zero.”

He did not name any of the channels or providers that would be affected or say for how long the interference would last.

Direct TV Inc., the largest U.S. satellite TV company, said it will not be affected.  Comcast Corp. said it was monitoring the situation.

Cox Communications Inc. said it could not immediately specify if its service would be affected and Dish Network Corp., Time Warner Cable Inc., Charter Communications Inc. and Cablevision Systems Corp. did not have any comment when contact attempts were made by AP.

“We are confident that service disruptions will be minimized or avoided,” Dianne VanBeber, a spokeswoman for Intelsat, told AP.

Emmet Fletcher, space surveillance and tracking manager for the Space Situational Awareness Program at the European Space Agency, said Galaxy 15 is currently floating over the Pacific Ocean to the east of Hawaii,

According to Fletcher, the Galaxy 15 was highly unusual because it continued to send out television signals unlike other malfunctioning satellites that automatically went into complete shutdown when navigational systems malfunctioned. 

Fletcher said the dead satellites are still a threat to other satellites, but less of one than Galaxy 15 poses.

“They’ll just cruise around the geobelt, drifting wherever they go, potentially causing havoc, when you lose control of them,” he told AP.

The geobelt is a narrow ban of space where satellites move in orbits that allow them to appear stationary in the sky in relation to specific points on earth.

SES spokesman Feltes said one option to prevent the cable television interruption would be using AMC 11′s propulsion system to shift that satellite about 60 miles away to an orbit that is still within its carefully prescribed “orbital box,” but as far away as possible from Galaxy 15.

He said SES had other strategies it was considering, but declined to provide any details.

“We have all of our technicians, all of our specialists on this case,” he told AP.

Both companies said there was no risk of an actual collision between the two satellites in space.

Intelsat said it was analyzing signals from Galaxy 15 each day in order to predict its trajectory and was trying to determine whether it can shut down the satellite’s transmission so it would not interfere with AMC 11.

VanBeber said cable companies could also adjust their equipment in order to minimize any interference.

She told AP that satellites, like Galaxy 15, could cost $250 million to build, launch and insure.

Feltes said the two companies were cooperating closely together.

“They have tried numerous things to regain control of the satellite or to have it finally shut down,” he told AP. “It needs some collaboration to bring the impact of this failure to an absolute minimum.”

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