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Electronic Communication
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Will A Runaway Satellite Disrupt Communication?

By James Donahue

It hasn’t been getting much attention in the American media, but there is a runaway communication satellite overhead that is drifting out of control and threatening to collide with a second satellite. If it happens on or about May 23, Americans may experience a disruption of cable programming.

The communications company Intelsat says it lost control of its Galaxy 15 satellite on April 8. While the satellite continues to receive and transmit satellite signals, Intelsat can no longer remotely steer it to remain in its orbit. Consequently Galaxy 15 has been creeping into the adjacent path of another television communication satellite, AMC 11 that serves several U.S. cable service systems.

SES World Skies, the owner of AMC 11, says this satellite receives digital programming from cable-television channels and transmits it to all U.S. cable networks. And it operates on the same frequencies as the maverick Galaxy 15.

While Intelsat is assuring us that its wayward satellite probably will not crash into AMC 11, or crash into the Earth for that matter, we have to wonder what would happen if the two satellites did, indeed collide. Or if some rogue piece of space debris crashed into these satellites at some other time? Just how much cable communication would be affected?

The cable companies have been secretive about just what services might be affected in the event of either a collision, or the rogue satellite slipping into the path of signals to and from AMC 11. Most news reports, however, suggest that nearly all of the major cable services in the United States would be in some way affected.

Indeed, SES World Skies spokesman Yves Feltes was quoted as saying he believed “there is likely to be some kind of interference. Our aim is to bring any interference down to zero.” A company release suggested that alternative technology may be possible to divert signals from the damaged or blocked satellite, and bounce them off other nearby satellites.

And Intelsat is reporting that company technicians have been moving signals from the runaway Galaxy 15 satellite to other backup satellites and that the problem is quickly getting resolved.

In the event of a worse-case scenario, however, we have to ask just how dependant we have become on all of this digital transmitting of communications to and from satellites flying far out into space?

When you think about it, all of the big communication providers are offering bundles that include not only movies, a broad range of television programming, digital telephone service, voice over Internet protocol (Internet telephone services) and Internet service. All of it depends on a wireless transmission of signals to and from satellites. This is why telephone service now can be offered all over the world at such competitive prices. Voice transmission over wires from place to place is a thing of the past.

Satellites also are being used for all of those cellular telephones, for FAX transmissions and those amazing GPS Tracking systems that now guide aircraft pilots, ships at sea and more recently private automobiles on the road.

We have a strange feeling that the unexpected destruction of the elaborate satellite system we have created might threaten a lot of important communication systems. What would happen if something unexpected, like a massive sun flare for example, wiped out all of the operating satellite systems at the same moment? All news, all Internet communications, all telephone conversations, all navigation systems would go silent.