Roscosmos PAO

Space junk. Russia's Express-AM4 telecommunications satellite launched 18 August, but ended up in a too-low, useless orbit.

Second Life for Failed Russian Satellite?

Carolyn is a staff writer for Science and is the editor of the In Brief section.

It's not dead yet! A Russian satellite on the brink of being de-orbited could still have a second life—as communications support for scientists in Antarctica. That's the idea of William Readdy and Dennis Wingo, co-founders of Polar Broadband Systems Ltd., a company created last December exclusively to repurpose the satellite for Antarctic broadband communications. With only a few days to go before Russian officials plan to begin guiding the satellite into a controlled descent into the Pacific Ocean, Readdy and Wingo are stepping up a campaign to get the word out about their plan and keep the satellite aloft. But it's not clear that the Russian State Commission, which will decide the satellite's fate this week, is listening.

The Express-AM4 satellite launched 18 August, but mechanical failures left it in a too-low and useless orbit. The satellite was still functional, but the Russian Satellite Communications Company's (RSCC) chief financial officer, Dennis Pivnyuk, said last week at the Satellite 2012 conference in Washington, D.C., that the Russian government was planning to bring it down this week after considering—and rejecting—numerous salvage plans.

But Polar Broadband Systems, which is funded by private investors, still holds out hope that they can obtain Express-AM4 and retool its orbit, Wingo says. "We have crafted an orbit that it can easily get to … where it can provide up to almost 16 hours a day of broadband coverage over the Antarctic." The satellite has enough fuel for another 10 years of operation, he adds. "It will open up a plethora of new possibilities for activities in the Antarctic—a sensor network, telemedicine; there are a tremendous number of applications enabled by this spacecraft. It increases the velocity of science in Antarctica if they are able to send data from all kinds of different experiments in real time, versus the episodic nature they have now." If they can obtain the satellite, Polar Broadband Systems hopes to have it in place by the next Antarctic summer—in time for Russian scientists' return to Lake Vostok to collect the first sample of water from an Antarctic subglacial lake. "It could be on Russian television, live," Wingo says.

New life. Polar Broadband Systems Ltd. proposes repurposing and repositioning the satellite into a new orbit to support Antarctic broadband communications.

Sixteen hours of continuous broadband coverage would certainly be a big boost, particularly for scientists working at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, which currently gets just a few hours a day of coverage. And while the South Pole Station's communications problems are the most acute, communications for the entire continent have been a problem for many years. Wingo describes it as a cyclical problem: The small Antarctic community "doesn't have sufficient market potential to justify the construction of a $150 to $200 million dedicated satellite to cover the area," he says—but once such a satellite is in place, there will be "an explosion of demand that would prove the market." Bringing in Express-AM4, he suggests, would be the necessary band-aid.

It wouldn't be the first time that a satellite was repurposed to serve as an Antarctic band-aid. "There's a long history of using old, semi-retired satellites" to support Antarctic communications, says Robin Bell, a geophysicist at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in Palisades, New York. In 1998, Readdy, then deputy associate NASA administrator for space operations, helped arrange for the National Science Foundation (NSF) to repurpose satellites in the Tracking and Data Relay Satellite System (TDRSS) for communications support in Antarctica. TDRS-1, originally launched in 1983, was used by scientists at NSF's Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station in Antarctica until it was decommissioned in 2010. The job of relaying communications for Antarctic scientists is now shared by several other aging TDRS satellites and NOAA's GOES 3 satellite, launched in 1978.

Bell, one of the authors of a 2011 National Research Council (NRC) report that identified future areas for scientific research in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean, notes that the communications issue came up frequently in the report, and has been an issue for over a decade. But the problem has become even more acute in recent years, "particularly as the scientific community develops more instrumentation, with higher data rates and more real-time data," she says.

Real-time data transmission from remotely operated instruments is key in polar regions, where continuous climate data is particularly important and maintaining personnel in the Antarctic through the winter is expensive and hazardous, says Rita Colwell, an environmental microbiologist at the University of Maryland, College Park, and another co-author of the NRC report. "For the last 10 years, this has been a recurring issue."

NSF, which funds and manages the U.S. Antarctic Program, has been looking for new ways to address that issue. In April 2011, NSF issued a request for information (RFI), looking for long-term solutions to its broadband needs through 2030 and focusing particularly on the lack of coverage for the South Pole Station. Wingo says that the salvaged satellite would provide 10 times more than the minimum requirements outlined in the RFI—enough to service other national programs in Antarctica as well.

NSF has also convened a Blue Ribbon Panel, headed by former Lockheed Martin chair and CEO Norman Augustine, to investigate infrastructure requirements, including communications, for the continent's research activities. Polar Broadband Systems Ltd. has participated in the public discussions of the panel; Wingo says that NSF has expressed strong interest in their project, but is unable to cut any deals until the satellite is acquired. "Their hands are kind of tied."

As for the fate of Express-AM4, Wingo says, "everyone is just waiting to hear. We won't know for sure until we see whether it gets splashed this weekend." There's a narrow window of opportunity to bring the satellite down safely in the Pacific Ocean, he adds, so if it doesn't happen now, there may be another opportunity to convince the Russian State Commission to reconsider.

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