Published April 9, 2013 – A “technical anomaly” appears to have knocked out Canada’s Radarsat-1 satellite, which has been beaming images of everything from Arctic ice to oilspills down to earth for almost 18 years.
The satellite, which gathered detailed images day and night, through cloud, smoke and haze, malfunctioned on March 29.
An expert team is trying to determine what is wrong with the aging satellite, which helped “set world standards” for Earth observation, says Michel Doyon, manager of flight operations for the space agency.
Doyon says it is unlikely the satellite was hit by space trash, which is a growing concern as orbit grows more congested.
“We’re pretty sure it was not debris,” Doyon told Postmedia News.
“The initial indications point to a power problem,” he said, explaining how, on the evening of March 29, Radarsat-1 suddenly stopped communicating.
“We were not able to talk to it,” says Doyon.
He says flight operators were later able to establish some contact and placed the spacecraft in a semi-dormant “safe hold mode” to conserve energy as they try to figure out what went wrong.
Doyon says it will likely be a couple of weeks before the team determines whether anything can be done to save the satellite.
While they can probe it with signals sent from the ground, he says, there is no going up to fix the satellite.
And once Radarsat-1 dies, the 2,750-kilogram chunk of hardware will add to a growing collection of dead spacecraft and debris in orbit.
Radarsat-1 could continue to circle the planet for a decade or more before falling back to Earth, Doyon says. When it eventually re-enters Earth’s atmosphere, he says, “most of it will vaporize.”
Government and commercial users of Radarsat-1 images have been advised that no new orders for imagery are being accepted, though archival images are still available.
The space agency said the loss of Radarsat-1 images “does not impact the security of Canadian borders, coasts and northern territories as Radarsat-2 continues to provides critical, high-quality data.”
Doyon says Radarsat-2, which was launched in 2007, and other earth observation satellites, should be able to file the void left by Radarsat-1.
Radarsat-1, which cost about $620 million, has been “a great technological success story,” the space agency says. Launched in 1995,it was designed to operate five years but was in its 18th year of operation when it blinked out.
“It has done a marvelous job,” says Doyon.
The satellite, with long solar panels that extend likes wings, is about 800 kilometres above Earth and circles the planet every 100 minutes.
Unlike optical satellites, which pick up reflected sunlight, Radarsat-1 gathered images using synthetic aperture radar. The SAR system beams microwaves toward Earth and records the reflections. This enables Radarsat craft to gather images day and night, and through cloud, haze and smoke.
Radarsat-1 covered the Arctic daily, most of Canada every 72 hours and the entire Earth every 24 days.
Technical advances incorporated into Radarsat-2 have enhanced marine surveillance, ice monitoring and disaster management.
The next generation Radarsat Constellation Mission was approved in January when the federal government announced a $700-million deal with MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates to build the three satellites.
MDA, which is also a global distributor of Radarsat-1 data, issued a statement Tuesday saying the satellite’s “technical difficulties” are “not significant” to its business.