Friday, May 31, 2013

Malfunction... Malfunction...

Orbital debris surrounds the Earth. Credit: Google Earth.

Just a month ago, Ecuador launched its first satellite using a Chinese rocket. Now, it seems it has met with disaster. With help from the US-based Joint Operations Center, scientists have been able to piece together data, tracking, and timing to conclude that the small satellite has probably hit a tumbling, spent Soviet-era rocket booster. The JOC monitors all space orbiting objects and debris. With their fine attention to details, they help NASA plot safe trajectories and warn the ISS when a piece of debris is likely to pass into their safety zone.

Logo for the Ecuadorian satellite.

The Pegaso satellite was Ecuador's first and only satellite, and was a proud moment of achievement for the nation. It was a nano-satellite, cube-shaped weighing only 2.6 pounds. Its purpose was to take pictures from orbit and play the national anthem so radio operators could practice space communications. Not much of a satellite compared to the big advanced models usually launched, but for EXA, the Ecuadorian Space Agency, and the people of Ecuador, a proud achievement. Their scientists speculate that there may still be hope it can be contacted and stabilized, but they should no doubt be looking forward for their next mission.

GOES-13. Credit: Boeing.

Bad luck isn't just for Ecuador. It happens to American equipment, too. The weather satellite GOES-13, operated by NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), has lost control of both of its main instruments. The satellite was tasked with providing weather coverage of the American East Coast. Fortunately, because of the importance of weather coverage, a "spare" or backup satellite had already been launched in 2006 and placed in "storage mode" just in case something like this happened. With the re-activation of the backup satellite, weather coverage is assured.

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