Something strange has happened to one of Europe’s satellites while it was orbiting 22,369 miles (36,000 kilometers) above the US and Mexico.
On June 17, Satellite Control in Luxembourg tried to establish contact with its satellite AMC-9, but received no response. Soon operators watched as their satellite started to drift and then broke apart. Investigations show at least two unknown objects were in the vicinity of AMC-9 some days earlier.
Did these space objects disable ESA’s satellite or did something else happen?
On July 1, the SES Satellite Control re-established contact to AMC-9, but two huge pieces of the satellite may have broken away somewhere over the two countries.
It is unlikely the debris will cause damage on Earth. It will most likely burn up when re-entering the atmosphere. However, it could cause havoc for nearby orbiting satellites.
Speaking to Ars Technica, Doug Hendrix, CEO of ExoAnalytic Solutions said: ‘We have seen several pieces come off of it over the past several days.
‘We are tracking at least one of the pieces. I would hesitate to say we know for sure what happened.’ Hendrix said that an uncontrolled debris event at this altitude is very rare, and could set off a chain reaction of cascading debris from other satellites.
He added: ‘This is a seminal event for understanding what happens when there are many fragments at that altitude.’
The challenge is that those pieces, in human terms, will be up there almost forever, and will present a long-term navigational hazard,” Brian Weeden, a space situational awareness expert at the Secure World Foundation said. “This will definitely increase the odds of collisions over the Americas, but I don’t think this is going to set off a chain reaction
Brian Weeden, a space situational awareness expert at the Secure World Foundation, said: ‘The challenge is that those pieces, in human terms, will be up there almost forever, and will present a long-term navigational hazard.
AMC-9 was launched by SES in 2003 aboard a Russian Proton rocket, and is nearing the end of its 15-year design lifetime.
It’s currently unknown what might have happened to the satellite. There are several possibilities how the satellite was destroyed. According to Weeden the AMC-9 satellite itself could have been hit by some sort of debris. Another possibility is that it was harmed by space weather or it sustained a failure due to manufacturing.
It is also possible the AMC-9 satellite was attacked by “something”, Weeden stressed that there is no evidence at all that this damage was deliberate.