Russia To Spike Plan To Recycle Satellite For Antarctic Broadband Access

The mis-aligned Russian Express AM4 satellite could provide fast access for Antarctic scientists if Polar Broadband can convince the Russians

This week, Russian officials plan to de-orbit and sink a satellite that got mis-launched into the wrong orbit – despite a plan which could recycle that satellite to provide fast broadband to the most remote isolated area on earth.

A botched launch last August put the $265 million (£167 million) Express-AM4 communication satellite into the wrong orbit, thanks to a Proton Briz-M rocket upper stage failure casued by a miscalculation.

However, according to, Polar Broadband Ltd. (PBL) is working with satellite industry insurance experts and investors to salvage Express AM4, and both reposition and repurpose the satellite to serve one of the most remote communities on earth – the international science community in the Antarctic.

Space junk

The satellite has been in an unworkable orbit since August 18 and the Russian authorities plan to bring it down in the Pacific Ocean between March 20 and 26.

According to Denis Pivnyuk, deputy financial director of Russian Satellite Communications Company (RSCC), the satellite hasn’t been damaged, but after spending seven months in the miscalculated orbit, constantly going through earth’s radiation fields, its life span has been drastically reduced.

RSCC has confirmed that the use of the satellite for tasks it was designed for is impossible. Underwriters have declared it a total loss and paid the insurance claim to the owners of the spacecraft.

But William Readdy, a former NASA astronaut and the co-founder of PBL, thinks the expensive heap of space metal can still be useful. At the Satellite 2012 conference last week, the told reporters that the spacecraft could be easily placed into a new orbit which would provide Antarctic research bases with vastly superior communication links to those currently available. According to Readdy, after repositioning, there will be enough fuel on board for more than 10 years of orbit maintenance.

This is not the first satellite repurposing project for Readdy. In 1998, he helped reposition Tracking and Data Relay Satellite System (TRDSS) for the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) U.S. Antarctic Program. This allowed transmission and reception of data from the Antarctic region. TDRS F1 served this mission for twelve years, before its second retirement in 2010.

Keeping the satellite in orbit would also have financial benefits. According to Readdy, an NSF Request for Information for satellite broadband services received bids last summer in the range of $100 to $500 million (£63 to £315 million), while the PBL plan for Express-AM4 would cost approximately $20 million (£12.6 million).

Used satellite for sale

Michel Loucks, PBL co-founder and mission operations specialist, refuted claims of the Russian authorities about the amount of radiation the satellite received.

“Our high-fidelity analysis of this orbit indicates that AM4 has received about a third of the planned dosage for the designed 15 year lifetime of the spacecraft in GEO,” said Loucks.

“Our planned mission orbit has less than one third of the radiation exposure expected for a normal GEO spacecraft. So we could fly for 20 years and still be well under the stated lifetime exposure limits.”

Loucks believes their plan is simple when compared to the recent recovery of the Advanced Extremely High Frequency-1 spacecraft (AEFH-1). AEFH-1 was placed in a bad orbit in August of 2010, and switching it to a new orbit took over 14 months. In comparison, the Express-AM4 could be rerouted in just two months.

“The satellite can be easily configured to provide much needed broadband connectivity for the international science communities on the Antarctic and surrounding waters. Imagine live reporting from the lake Vostok drilling site. There are a lot of possibilities once you put this kind of capability in place,” said Loucks.

Unless PBL can negotiate the repurposing of Express-AM4 in the space of a week, this capability will be drowned in the waters of the Pacific Ocean.

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