AT&T’s Spaceway 1 satellite could explode. It probably won’t though.

According to SpaceNews, AT&T’s Spaceway 1 satellite is in imminent danger. Folks on the ground are working hard to figure out how to move it to its final resting place before the potential of an explosion becomes a reality. According to that site,

In December, an unexplained anomaly caused “significant and irreversible thermal damage” to Spaceway-1’s batteries, DirecTV said in a filing dated Jan. 19. Boeing, the filing says, concluded that the batteries are at high risk of bursting if recharged, since the damaged cells can’t be isolated.

Well that’s not good.

As a result of that damage, the satellite will be moved to a high parking orbit to live out the rest of eternity. It’s not likely it will actually explode, not at all. And to set your mind at ease, even if it did explode, it wouldn’t trigger the kind of cinematic mayhem you saw in that film Gravity from a few years back. It might make a small mess in that region of space but I don’t imagine there would be any sort of massive issue.

How will this affect DIRECTV service?

Simple as this: It won’t. Spaceway 1 was the original satellite for the 103 location back in 2005. It was in use for several years, but it’s been made obsolete by three other massive satellites in the same orbital slot. The first, DIRECTV10, was launched in 2007 and it was followed by DIRECTV12 and T15.

Note: AT&T refers to its satellites by the letter T and a number. Satellites that were launched before AT&T’s deal with DIRECTV was complete were originally referred to as DIRECTV and a number. While AT&T now calls these older satellites “T” as in “T10” I’m told that the federal government doesn’t actually have a facility to rename satellites so I’m still calling the older ones by the names in their launch filing. But I’m digressing. 

For years, the Spaceway-1 satellite provided backup service to Alaska, but it already moved away from that role. Most customers did not get channels from Spaceway-1 anyway, and if you did, you will not notice the difference. Your TV channels move from satellite to satellite all the time and you don’t see it.

Is this going to be a catastrophe?

It is absolutely not going to be a catastrophe. AT&T engineers are well aware of the problem and are taking measured steps. They’re keeping the US government and other world space agencies aware of what’s going on. This is not going to be a problem for any other satellites in the sky, it’s not going to tear through the international space station. That station orbits at about 250 miles above Earth, while communications satellites are about 20,000 miles further away. Similarly, there is little reason for Sandra Bullock to worry.

February 25 deadline

The same article points out that there is a February 25 deadline for moving the largely dead satellite. At that point it would potentially pass through a shadow region, since the sun would be behind the earth. I don’t understand the orbital mechanics of that but I do believe them. If the satellite is still in its current orbit after that, the batteries would start to turn on because the solar panels would stop working. This means there’s a chance they could burst and as I said, that’s not good.

Satellite TV is here to stay

As I’ve said in earlier articles, AT&T continues to invest in satellite television. They’ve recently put massive satellites in their primary locations. These satellites are enough to provide 4K local channels, if there ever are any, and keep enough commercial customers like airlines going. I’ll admit that the days when satellite was the new kid on the block are over, but it’s a great value and you can feel 100% comfortable knowing it’s not going anywhere.

About the Author

Stuart Sweet
Stuart Sweet is the editor-in-chief of The Solid Signal Blog and a "master plumber" at Signal Group, LLC. He is the author of over 8,000 articles and longform tutorials including many posted here. Reach him by clicking on "Contact the Editor" at the bottom of this page.