On Tuesday, a communications satellite in the Iridium fleet suffered complete obliteration at the hands of a defunct Russian satellite Cosmos 2251. Although satellites have been hit by space junk in the past (four times since 1996), this is the first time a satellite has suffered a direct hit… from another satellite. The aftermath of the collision was messy and US Space Command is tracking hundreds of pieces of debris. There is some concern the ex-satellite parts could collide with other active satellites or even the International Space Station (although the odds are still well within safety margins for the crew), but much effort is being put into tracking and modelling the new space junk additions.
If you thought AGI was quick at assembling those superb satellite animations only a day after the event, you’ll be even more impressed with the company who lost their expensive piece of kit. Iridium has a replacement satellite. A spare. Already in orbit. And plans are afoot to “plug the hole” in the satellite phone network. Now that’s what I call service!
It’s probably to be expected, especially when considering competition in the communication industry, but it is an amazing feat to have a backup plan enacted only a couple of days after losing an expensive satellite. But this isn’t only a plan, it’s a satellite, already in orbit, waiting to be powered up and redirected to its predecessor’s old orbit (or at least fulfil it’s coverage on the ground).
Although Iridium was concerned about patchy service for some customers, the satellite network’s mesh design will lower the likelihood of any service outages. So put your satellite phone away, the signal should still be strong.
“The Iridium service hole patch addresses a significant portion of outages that customers otherwise might have experienced,” said Iridium spokesperson Liz DeCastro. “Due to the mesh design of the Iridium network, the company expects further impact to customers to be limited.”
So it sounds as if it’s a sturdy network that can easily deal with one lost component, but the best was yet to come in the press release. “The company also is taking the necessary steps to replace the lost satellite with one of its in-orbit spares, and the operational planning stage is underway,” DeCastro added.
Naturally, Iridium is investigating the incident, saying that they are working “with the appropriate government agencies”. At this time it is unclear whether Iridium will be seeking compensation from the Russian government, but this is a possibility. After all, dead satellites should either be de-orbited or moved from the paths of operational satellites. Unfortunately for Iridium 33, Cosmos 2251 was left at an altitude used by commercial satellite companies.
There may be no LEO traffic control, and there is certainly no “right of way” in space, the responsibility to dispose of space junk lies with the satellite’s last owner. In this case, that would be Russia.
Sources: Tech Radar, Iridium Press Release