Geostationary satellites are usually developed with a lifetime of 15 years, although they may vary in some cases. According to Rusch, there are nearly 350 commercial communication satellites in the geostationary orbit at present.
Fremont, CA: A recent study has highlighted that nearly a third of commercial geostationary satellites in orbit are operating beyond their designed lives, which is a considerable improvement considering the figures from previous studies. According to research firm TelAstra of Los Angeles, nearly 31 percent of commercial geostationary comsats remained in service past their expected retirement in 2020, which is more than double the number of satellites that put in extra time after 2009.
“Satellite operators appear to be maintaining older fleets for two primary reasons. The most immediate is that operators have ordered fewer satellites in recent years, leaving them with no other choice but to keep using aging satellites or diminish their coverage,” said Roger Rusch, president of TelAstra. “The other is that operators, when they do order satellites, are buying more powerful models that can do the job of multiple earlier spacecraft. The satellites being built today are much higher capacity, so it’s a more complicated equation than just looking at numbers of satellites.”
Geostationary satellites are usually developed with a lifetime of 15 years, although they may vary in some cases. According to Rusch, there are nearly 350 commercial communication satellites in the geostationary orbit at present. At the current rate, keeping aging satellites in orbit will soon become a trend, especially as operators buy more electric propulsion satellites that need less fuel to stay in orbit than chemically-propelled models. While solar panels on aging satellites slowly lose their efficiency, resulting in less power, operators still have an option to shut down some payloads to maintain limited service. Operators also have the option to co-locate satellites with limited power to maintain coverage over the same area.
Rusch cited Iridium as an example some operators may look to since Iridium’s first-generation satellites were designed for seven-year missions but often lasted around 20 years. Similar to the Iridium’s Gen-1 constellation, TelAstra’s new Iridium NEXT constellation will also operate in low Earth orbit, only with an additional operation to transfer to geostationary orbit. “If that kind of very clever and intense planning were to go into geostationary satellites, you could probably push the useful life of these satellites out to 30 years on a routine basis,” Rusch said. “I think some of that will go on.”
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