On Thursday, satellite service provider Intelsat announced that one of its communications satellites is now completely lost in orbit above Earth, rendering the vehicle an unmovable piece of space debris. Intelsat says that something damaged the satellite, causing its onboard propellant to leak out into space. Now, without the ability to maneuver and communicate, the satellite could pose a potential threat to other vehicles in the same orbit.
For Intelsat, the most obvious consequence of the loss is a financial one. Built by Boeing, the satellite, called Intelsat 29e, cost between $400 and $450 million and was supposed to operate up to 15 years in space. But now its lifetime has been cut short after just three years in orbit, preventing Intelsat from receiving any planned revenue from the spacecraft’s communications coverage over North and South America.
But the now-dead satellite is also a liability for other satellites that are on a similar trajectory. The spacecraft’s orbit is a high one above Earth known as geostationary orbit, or GEO — a path above the equator where satellites match the eastward rotation of the planet. That means they essentially “hover” over the same patch of the Earth at all times. It’s a popular spot to deposit communications and surveillance satellites because they just sit in one location of the sky for years.
The problem with this orbit, though, is it’s incredibly high up — around 22,000 miles above the planet’s surface. Satellites in this orbit are less affected by the Earth’s atmosphere and aren’t dragged down as easily as satellites in lower orbits. So if a satellite fails in this orbit, like Intelsat 29e did, it’s basically stuck up there for hundreds of years and won’t be coming down. Because of the damage Intelsat 29e sustained,