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A Russian communications satellite mysteriously malfunctioned earlier this week, reports SpaceToday. Some suggest that the spacecraft was struck by a micrometeoroid or a piece of orbital debris. Express-AM11 is now being moved to a graveyard orbit.

The Russian Express-AM11 satellite suffered what its operator, the Russian Satellite Communications Corporation (RSCC), called a “sudden external impact” early on March 29.

The EXPRESS-AM11 was designed for digital TV and radio broadcasting, telephony, data transmission and broadband Internet access using VSATs. It offered communications and broadcasting across Russia, CIS countries, Middle East, and Asia using 26 C-band transponders and 4 Ku-band transponders.

The impact caused the loss of fluid used by the spacecraft’s thermal control system. The spacecraft also temporarily lost attitude control, and while engineers were able to restore the spacecraft’s attitude temperatures inside the spacecraft rose to critical levels, forcing RSCC to boost the spacecraft into a disposal spacecraft before control of the spacecraft was permanently lost.

RSCC has shifted the customers of Express-AM11, primarily TV and radio broadcasting services, to the company’s other satellites. The spacecraft, built by Russian manufacturer NPO PM with a communications payload provided by Alcatel, had been launched less than two years ago into geosynchronous orbit at 96.5 degrees east.

This should be a good test of the U.S. antisatellite response time. Here are current launches and Vandenberg’s AFB Launch Schedule.

The Air Force launched the XSS-11 a year ago which has the ability to inspect other satellites. Some believe antisatellite capabilities are also being added to the U.S. arsenal, even to disrupt or destroy other satellites. Still, if recent articles available on the internet are any indication, close observation and rendezvous may not yet be possible for geosynch satellites. They’re sitting ducks.

Air Force Research Laboratory is “planning a small experimental satellite that would orbit in close proximity to a host spacecraft and keep tabs on their surrounding space environment” in geostationary orbit. It’s called the Autonomous Nanosatellite Guardian for Evaluating Local Space or ANGELS program:

The Angels satellite will be launched into a geostationary orbit for an experiment that is expected to last about a year, according to the request for information. The Air Force hopes to extend the mission for another two years, according to the request for information.

While ANGELS will eventually operate in geostationary orbits, the first space guard satellites, like XSS, DART and Orbital Express, operate only in low earth orbit (LEO).

“Parasitic” microsatellites could prove useful for Anti-SAT missions if the microsatellite were able to maneuver close enough to the target satellite to disrupt or destroy it. Microsatellites could also perform defensive functions for satellites.

A “quick reaction” space optical payload with the potential to spot hidden targets is in development by Raytheon. In the responsive-space approach, satellites and their cargo would be kept in readiness in a holding facility where systems could be assembled and transported rapidly to a convenient launch site. “Conceivably, a system could be mounted on a satellite, launched and in orbit some 200 miles above Earth within three to seven days of a request by a field commander,” says Raytheon.

Of course NASA has depended on the Russian Soyuz and Progress to ferry astronauts to the space station since the 2003 Columbia disaster. The Russian “Istrebitel Sputnikov” (IS) ASAT was planned to be a guided “kamikaze”-style spacecraft carrying explosives and capable of changing orbit.

U.S. satellites may inevitably come under attack. Who do you suppose is calling the shots; Homeland Security or DOD?

Nicholas Johnson, chief scientist and programme manager for orbital debris at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, says while possible, such an impact would be “exceptionally rare” in geostationary orbit. He told New Scientist the only case of a spacecraft being struck in such an orbit that he could recall was ESA’s Olympus spacecraft which is believed to have been hit by a meteoroid in August 1993.

“It’s not infrequently that when a spacecraft fails suddenly spacecraft operators say we got hit by something,” Johnson notes.

More than 9,000 pieces of space debris are orbiting the Earth, a hazard that can only be expected to get worse in the next few years. And currently there’s no workable and economic way to clean up the mess.

The 45th Space Wing, supports launch operations at Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Peterson AF Base in Colorado Springs works closely with NORAD. SeeSat has the latest poop from amateur satellite observers who explain how to build your own satellite tracking station.

Other space news is available at CBS, Dragon in Space, RussianSpaceWeb, SpaceFlightNow, SpaceRef, FloridaToday, FT Blog, Houston Chronicle, LaunchDate, EarthViewer, ESatcom, Lloyd’s Satellite Constellations, OrbiReport, SatComsUK and SatNews. Space Software includes; Heavens Above, J-Track 3D, Orbitron, Earth Viewer and NASA’s World Wind.

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