easy to imagine that once a spacecraft leaves Earth’s atmosphere and is
in a stable orbit, the most dangerous phase of the mission is over.
After all, that’s when we collectively close the live stream and turn
our attentions back to terrestrial matters. Once the fire and fury of
the launch is over with, all the excitement is done. From that point on,
it’s just years of silently sailing through the vacuum of space. What’s
the worst that could happen?
Unfortunately, satellite radio provider
Sirius XM just received a harsh reminder that there’s still plenty that
can go wrong after you’ve slipped Earth’s surly bonds. Despite a
flawless launch in early December 2020 on a SpaceX Falcon 9 and a
reportedly uneventful trip to its designated position in geostationary
orbit approximately 35,786 km (22,236 mi) above the planet, their brand
new SXM-7 broadcasting satellite appears to be in serious trouble.
Technologies, prime contractor for the SXM-7, says they’re currently
trying to determine what’s gone wrong with the 7,000 kilogram satellite.
In a statement, the Colorado-based aerospace company claimed they were
focused on “safely completing the commissioning of the satellite and
optimizing its performance.” But the language used by Sirius XM in theirJanuary
27th filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commissionwas
notably more pessimistic. No mention is made of bringing SXM-7 online,
and instead, the company makes it clear that their existing fleet of
satellites will be able to maintain service to their customers until a
replacement can be launched.
what happened, and more importantly, is there any hope for SXM-7?
Neither company has released any concrete details, and given the amount
of money on the line, there’s a good chance the public won’t get the
full story for some time. But we can theorize a bit based on what we do
know, and make some predictions about where things go from here.
STORY SO FAR
know the launch went off without a hitch. For one thing, Sirius XM has
made it clear they aren’t implicating SpaceX in the failure. But
moreover, as is customary for the commercial launch provider, the entire
mission was live streamed. Had there been some kind of issue during
fairing or payload separation that could have physically damaged SXM-7,
the whole world would have seen it.
also know that SXM-7 was functioning normally after it separated with
the Falcon 9’s upper stage. The booster put the satellite into a
geostationary transfer orbit, but it was the spacecraft’s own onboard
propulsion systems that were responsible for carrying it the rest of the
way. Had the satellite failed completely, or was otherwise unresponsive
to ground controllers, it would never have arrived at its intended
about the spacecraft itself? As the name implies, SXM-7 is the seventh
satellite of its type, all of which have been based on some permutation
of Maxar’s modular SSL-1300 bus. This is an extremely popular platform,
and since its introduction in the late 1980s, has been the basis of
nearly 150 current or planned communication and weather satellites. Of
these, only a handful have experienced major system failures. In short,
this is a mature and well-understood spacecraft. A systemic problem,
while not impossible, seems unlikely.
this point, we can’t say for sure why SXM-7 failed so late in the game.
But if ground controllers had control of the spacecraft and were able to
maneuver it into orbit, it stands to reason that the fault has something
to do with its ability to be used commercially.
have theorized that the satellite’s large unfurlable reflector, critical
to its ability to deliver streaming audio to the tiny antennas used by
consumer XM radio receivers, has failed to open. Or potentially the
issue is in one of the satellite’s powerful radios; either SXM-7 is
unable to receive the uplinked audio broadcast from Sirius XM, or it
can’t transmit it back down to Earth.
the failure of SXM-7 is surely a great disappointment to Sirius XM, the
company’s pragmatic approach to operating their satellite fleet should
keep it from becoming anything more than a temporary setback. Their
primary XM-3 and XM-4 satellites are still in good health, and an
orbital backup is ready to take over should the need arise. Another
satellite, SXM-8, is also due to join the fleet later this year. But
beyond these practical considerations, the company was also careful to
protect themselves financially.
the SEC filing, Sirius XM revealed they purchased a $225 million
insurance policy for SXM-7 that covered not only the launch, but the
first year of commercial operation. While for many missions it would be
enough to get reimbursed for a vehicle that’s destroyed during liftoff,
this case is a perfect example of why extending that coverage into the
spacecraft’s operational lifetime can be important when the long-term
success of a commercial venture is potentially on the line.
while that potential insurance payout might be good news for Sirius XM
stockholders in the short term, it will ultimately add to an
industry-wide problem that’s been building for years. With a relatively
limited pool of policyholders from which premiums can be collected,
insuring spacecraft is an unusually risky proposition. For example, the
$410+ million payout that resulted from the loss of a United Arab
Emirates military satellite in July 2019cancelled
out the year’s premiums for the entire industry.
this hasn’t been much of a concern, but as launches become cheaper and
more frequent, the likelihood that insurers will get hit with a claim
increases. Logically this should lead to rising premiums, but since
spacecraft insurance isn’t compulsory, insurers could price themselves
right out the market if they aren’t careful. It will be interesting to
see if an influx of new customers can balance out the equation in the
coming decades, or if the concept of space insurance in its current form
ends up being little more than an interesting historical footnote from
the fledgling days of space commerce.