Science 3 min read

EchoStar-3 Goes Dark After 20 Years in Space

Artist rendering of a damaged satellite in orbit. | 3Dsculptor |

Artist rendering of a damaged satellite in orbit. | 3Dsculptor |

After an anomaly of unknown origins occurred, a communications company lost contact with a 20-year-old satellite of its fleet during orbital maneuvers.

EchoStar-3 spins out of control after 20 years in Earth's orbitClick To Tweet

What Happened to the Aging EchoStar-3 satellite?

Managed by the EchoStar Corporation (based in Englewood, Colorado), EchoStar-3 is a broadcast satellite that was built by Lockheed Martin and launched into orbit by the Atlas 2AS rocket on October 5, 1997.

Supposed to have been retired in 2012, the EchoStar has already worked for five years beyond its 15 years operational lifetime, and in the last 3 years, to save fuel, it was put in an inclined orbit (an orbit exhibiting an angle other than 0° to the equatorial plane).

On July 29th, AGI’s ComSpOC (Commercial Space Operations Center), a company that tracks satellites and monitors their orbital patterns, had warned the Bolivian Space Agency (ABE) that its sole satellite, Tupak Katari-1, was in the path of the (now drifting) EchoStar-3.

The SES-2 satellite, operated by SES, was also in EchoStar-3’s path, but neither it nor the ABE’s satellite had to be moved.

On August 2nd, EchoStar announced that the EchoStar-3 satellite has experienced an anomaly of unknown origin while moving to another orbital position last week, causing the communication with the satellite to cease.

“… we are working in cooperation with the satellite manufacturer to re-establish a reliable link in order to recover and retire the spacecraft,” said Derek de Bastos, EchoStar CEO, in a statement. “In spite of the anomaly, we believe that the current EchoStar-3 orbit does not present a significant risk to the operating satellites in the geostationary arc.”

Satellites can go Dark, and may Come Back, out of the Blue

Anomalies are commonplace in satellites and EchoStar-3 isn’t the first, and maybe not the last, satellite to go dark.

Earlier this summer, SES’s AMC-9, a geostationary communications satellite, spun out of control. SES said that if it regains control it will retire the 14-year-old a year ahead of schedule. The following video might make you feel queezy.

February of last year, JAXA (Japan’s space agency) launched a groundbreaking $273 million USD satellite, called Hitomi, to monitor black holes.

Hitomi remained operational for merely a month before ceasing communication under strange circumstances. Before it died, Hitomi sent a photo of a galaxy cluster 240 million light years away, the Perseus Cluster, which is home to a supermassive black hole.

The JAXA attempts to regain control of Hitomi all failed before declaring it was beyond recovery.

Besides satellites that suddenly break down, there are those that, long lost, mysteriously resume functioning.

This is the case of a satellite built by MIT. LES1 (Lincoln Experimental Satellite 1), was part of a series of satellites built in the 1960s by MIT.

In 1967, two years after its launch, LES1 ceased transmitting any signal and was declared as lost.

Almost 50 years after disappearing, LES1 has just renewed contact with Earth, transmitting signals that were detected by a British amateur astronomer.

When will Earth’s orbit be a satellite junkyard?

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Zayan Guedim

Trilingual poet, investigative journalist, and novelist. Zed loves tackling the big existential questions and all-things quantum.

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