Repurposing Express-AM4: Mission Possible: Recycling Space Junk into Antarctic Science Treasure

By dennis_wingo
March 19, 2012
Filed under
Repurposing Express-AM4: Mission Possible: Recycling Space Junk into Antarctic Science Treasure

Express-AM4 Background

On August 18, 2011 the Express-AM4 satellite, built by Astrium for the Russian Satellite Communications Company (RSSC) was launched by a Proton rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. The Briz M upper stage subsequently failed, placing the spacecraft into a 1,007 x 20,317 km altitude, in a 51.3 degree inclination orbit. The failure of upper stages is a somewhat common occurrence, most recently happening to the AMC-14 satellite in March of 2008 and the Arabsat 4A satellite in February of 2006. For each of these launches, efforts were made to either repurpose the satellites in new orbits or to perform exotic orbital maneuvers that would eventually place these satellites in useful Geostationary Earth Orbit (GEO) orbits for some fraction of their nominally planned lifetimes.

As a founder of a previous company interested in the on orbit servicing of GEO satellites (Orbital Recovery), I have had a continuing interest in this area. With each of these incidents, a group of professional space colleagues and I have investigated potential recovery missions. Usually within a few hours of such a launch our informal group is able to find out the general parameters of the orbit and to begin investigating options for possible missions.

With Express-AM4 it was quickly determined that many of the usual ideas floated in the past would not be viable this time. The time of year of the launch of Express-AM4 made the phasing of a lunar flyby untenable for bringing the satellite back to GEO or even a near-GEO orbit. Changing the inclination from 51.3 degrees to equatorial and raising the orbit to GEO would be extremely propellant intensive and would not provide any usable service life. With the ownership of Express-AM4 residing with RSSC, essentially the state telecommunications company, a sale of the satellite to the U.S. Department of Defense (as was the case with AMC-14) also seemed extremely unlikely.

In the weeks after launch, accurate information regarding the status of AM4 was difficult to obtain both through the press and through private channels. After some sleuthing we did establish that Express-AM4 had been located by the U.S. Department of Defense and that the satellite builder Astrium had made contact with the spacecraft (which was functional). By this time it was early September and since we had already determined that a lunar flyby wasn’t feasible, we looked for alternate missions for the satellite.

Remembering a conversation I had at a meteor shower viewing several years ago at the Small Satellite Conference (regarding Antarctic broadband), I attempted to contact Dan Faber from Australia. Days later, team member Mike Loucks contacted Jan King, his former boss and a small sat genius who (it turned out) was also working in Australia to put together a mission to supply broadband services to Antarctic. After discussions with Jan and his group were unsuccessful, myself, Bill Readdy, former NASA Associate Administrator for human spaceflight, Mike Loucks an industry orbital dynamics expert, and other industry professionals, formed a company to pursue the opportunity- Polar Broadband Systems Ltd.

The Polar Broadband Systems Ltd. Team

Our team at Polar Broadband Systems Ltd. brings much to the table for the potential salvage and repurposing of Express-AM4 . Bill Readdy as former head of spaceflight operations at NASA helped establish the agreement between NASA and the National Science Foundation Office of Polar Programs that repurposed aging, inclined-orbit TDRS relay satellites for communications support in the Antarctic region to include the South Pole. Mike Loucks brings his twenty-four years of experience as an orbital dynamics/mission operations expert. He has helped to develop an orbital configuration that is unique, safe, and optimal for an Antarctic application within the capability of the propulsion system on Express-AM4 . My own role has been to coordinate between the different technical and business interests involved to help create a coherent technical and business case for the company and to develop the technical feasibility for the repurposing of Express-AM4. We have other industry professionals on board the core team that have provided invaluable advice on the best place to locate ground stations, provide equipment for the Antarctic environment, and provide independent technical validation.

Our team expanded with the addition of Space Partnership International, who helped us negotiate non-disclosure agreements with the relevant Russian and European interests involved. We also brought on board a financial professional based in Singapore who has shepherded our presentation to the investment community. Another key member has been Portland Advisers, who have worked with us and the investment community to put together our financial package. This team has developed and matured over the past few months and has produced a technical baseline for the repurposing mission, a system for insurance protection, a legal posture for licensing for the operation of Antarctic communications, and the operational roll-out of the system.

In April of 2011 the National Science Foundation placed a request for information (RFI) for the communications industry to respond to NSF needs for broadband communications in the Antarctic. Our understanding is that the capabilities offered were not viable within NSF’s limited budget for the U.S. Antarctic Program. The loss of Express-AM4 came well after the closure date of the RFI, but it became clear that the capabilities of Express-AM4 for the Antarctic community offered both a timely and affordable answer. In developing potential customers our team has participated in the public sessions of the U.S. Antarctic Program Blue Ribbon Panel, led by former Lockheed Martin chairman and CEO Dr. Norman Augustine. The role of this panel is to examine the status and capabilities of the existing Antarctic infrastructure and the future requirements of the U.S. in carrying out its activities there. A theme repeated multiple times is that an improvement in communications capability will bring expanded science capabilities for the U.S. and international Antarctic community. Reliable, dedicated satellite communications will have the added benefits of increasing safety, and enhancing operations and logistics efficiency.

Rationale for the Antarctic Support Mission

Various estimates for the production of a dedicated communications satellite to serve the Antarctic have ranged between $100-500 million dollars. Even then a single spacecraft cannot service the Antarctic continuously. Express-AM4 brings with it antennas in the C, Ku, and Ka bands that could be adapted to the needs of Antarctica. We would connect the spacecraft to the Internet via gateway stations in South Africa that we have selected for this effort.

Express-AM4 is a high-power satellite. There is an absence of water vapor in the Antarctic skies, link margins are expected to be robust, opening up entirely new applications and ground station opportunities for the community. Indeed mobile Internet antennas and systems currently used for Internet from airplanes and motor vehicles in the United States and Europe could be adapted to support Antarctic scientific expeditions to increase safety and provide logistical support. High bandwidth dishes at fixed installations would fundamentally transform Antarctic science. For example, the new ‘IceCube’ neutrino detector at the South Pole alone has an ultimate requirement for acquiring up to one terabyte of data per day. Express-AM4 would be able to support this level of data transfer along with the rest of the requirements from the U.S. Antarctic Program. Support for Russia and its effort to drill down to lake Vostok would be enabled as well, up to and including real time video and data transfer back to the Russian Academy of Sciences. New applications, including the Antarctic sensor network, a network of real time temperature and climate sensors that would dramatically improve our understanding of climate change in the Antarctic. In addition, the ability for distant medical professionals to interact with patients located in Antarctica and provide treatment via telemedicine could witness an order of magnitude increase in capability. Also, with a dramatically enhanced ability for people in Antarctica to communicate with the rest of our planet, people everywhere will enjoy a broader knowledge of this pristine continent – and the need to protect this resource as we explore it

All of this would be enabled by the repurposing of Express-AM4 for a cost on the order of $20 million dollars, a small fraction of the cost of a new, dedicated satellite — not to mention its associated launch costs.

Express-AM4 Concerns

Radiation Environment

There have been reports that the Express-AM4 spacecraft has received too high of a radiation dose, beyond that expected for its entire 15 year mission, thus rendering the use of the satellite to risky for our purpose. This analysis is likely based upon older computer models of the radiation environment in its current orbit. The current solar cycle (solar cycle 24) has so far only been a fraction of past solar cycles, upon which most current computer radiation models are based. This is shown graphically on the chart linked here, which is in turn based upon the latest information from the solar science community on the progress of this cycle.

A high resolution radiation analysis undertaken by Mike Loucks with support from Analytical Graphics, makers of industry standard Satellite Tool Kit, indicates that Express-AM4 has only received one third of its lifetime radiation dose. The intended orbit of Express-AM4, which is a 25,000 x 46,000 km x 51.3 degree inclination orbit, is a low-radiation orbit with less than one third the lifetime total dose for a GEO communications satellite. Thus our chosen orbit and the high resolution radiation analysis based upon the current radiation environment indicates that over the lifetime of the satellite, the total radiation dose will be much less than Express-AM4 would have experienced during its previously planned lifetime in GEO.

Collision Risk

There is a legitimate concern by the Russian State Commission regarding liability. Our team, working with the most up-to-date orbital debris environment provided by the U.S. government indicates that the repurposed Express-AM4 satellite in its new orbit has far less of a collision risk than even the standard GEO graveyard orbit. Express-AM4 in its intended orbit will pass no closer than 2,000 kilometers below the GEO belt, over six times the standard disposal orbit requirement. In the evolution of the orbit over time, our analysis indicates that for the as far into the future as our models are reliable (four decades), there is no collision risk for Express-AM4 with any GEO or non-GEO spacecraft. We have developed a maneuver burn plan for raising the satellite to its intended orbit that minimizes any possibility of collision and that will involve the U.S. Joint Satellite Operations Center (JSpOC) in order to insure that collisions are avoided throughout the plan. Our plan also includes fuel for a disposal maneuver that would lower apogee 1,500 km below GEO.

Our Reason for Going Public Today

We go public now as we have seen published reports that the spacecraft will be de-orbited within the next week. We have not heard this through official channels from the Russian government interagency working group, which has the responsibility for the fate of the Express-AM4 spacecraft.

We have worked these same issues before with prior salvage efforts and it is extremely easy for communications to be less robust than desired through language barriers and through multiple relays of discussions. Most of our team has a science background and we understand the transformative nature of the Express-AM4 satellite in this new role to support Antarctic science and wish to make it known that while you cannot completely eliminate risk from any venture, our team has the technical ability and has worked with independent validators, to verify that the Express-AM4 repurposing mission is viable and that the gain to the Antarctic community will completely rewrite how science is conducted at the bottom of the world.

Our team at Polar Broadband Systems Ltd. feels strongly about the potential of Express-AM4 in a repurposed role for Antarctic broadband communications. The Russian people suffered a loss of a marvelous new capability for broadband television and Internet over satellite with the original loss of Express-AM4 . We have worked well with the stake-holders and owners of the satellite to technically validate the spacecraft in its new orbit and to work through the operational issues of repurposing a GEO satellite for a non GEO orbit.

Our support from the insurance community, Astrium, the builder of Express-AM4 , and the Russian authorities has been highly cooperative. We have received a strong expression of interest from the Antarctic science community and from what we have heard from our visits to the public meetings of the Augustine Blue Ribbon panel, it is assured that one of the major recommendations be to encourage greater communications capability for the Antarctic.

The Russian people and government have also historically supported Antarctic science and indeed only in the past few weeks Russian scientists achieved the major breakthrough by drilling down to Lake Vostok, which has not seen the light of day in millions of years.

It is our strong desire to support such scientific efforts and to show that our team has done the work required to insure that our mission is safe, and has a good probability of success in its intended new orbit. The animation that we released on Sunday is the culmination of months of technical work to validate this mission. We look forward to bringing broadband communications to the Antarctic community, the final frontier for communications on Earth.