Moments were all it took for thousands of credit card readers and cash machines in Indonesia – in fact, almost a fifth of the country’s ATMs – to go offline en masse, causing widespread disruption to the country’s banking system. Although recent events may cause this incident to seem like the result of a malicious cyberattack, the outage was due to an entirely different reason.
The problem was an antenna failure on Telkom-1, a communications satellite owned by state-owned telecom company PT Telekomunikasi Indonesia. Although the company is attempting to resolve the issue by transferring Telkom-1’s customers to other satellites, that process is not finished and expected to last another week. If there were any hopes of restoring Telkom-1 to service, they were quickly extinguished when the satellite was found to be spewing debris; the antenna seems to have disintegrated.
Maybe a communications problem in Southeast Asia will seem extremely remote to Americans, but Telkom-1 is not an exception, and its failure highlights a very real concern; it is the fourth satellite in its orbit to have failed this summer alone. AMC-9, a satellite that did serve North America, was one of those; it suffered a still-unexplained malfunction that caused it to similarly break apart.
Yesterday’s satellites are just as vulnerable to old age as any other piece of technology. Death came to Telkom-1 when it was eighteen years old, three years past its original expiry date, although its manufacturers, Lockheed Martin, had reviewed it to last until 2019. AMC-9 was fourteen years old, and the two other aforementioned failures were nineteen and twenty years old.
You may wonder why any of this is relevant. Modern life is heavily reliant on the services provided by communications satellites. Although Indonesia has more people than Russia and over three quarters the population of the United States, its space program is small and has only a few satellite launches to its name. Nevertheless, the country is still reliant on communications satellites to the point where a single failure could cause such a far-reaching disruption.
And there is another concern from the debris broken satellites can produce. More satellites are being launched into the same orbit as older satellites that aren’t going anywhere. Earth-orbiting debris can transform into potentially hazardous space junk, striking other orbiting objects, creating more debris, and initiating a devastating chain reaction; this was the plot of the movie “Gravity,” but it is also a very real threat.
If these wonderful pieces of technology are to remain functional, they need the capability to be effectively replaced as soon as they expire; furthermore, proper maintenance must be done to keep space in Earth’s space. Space funding at a proper level is the only certain way for these things to happen.