Storm strikes Canada’s pair of telecom sats

Lightning may only strike once, but an electromagnetic storm appears to have caused double trouble at Telesat Canada after Anik E1 and Anik E2, the country’s two main communications satellites, were knocked out of service last week.

Technical troubles have been corrected on Anik E1. But sister satellite Anik E2 is orbiting aimlessly in space while engineers struggle to get the satellite back into service. The company faces a $ C300 million ($ 240 million) loss if service cannot be restored to the uninsured bird.

Unheard of

Telesat officials say the dual failures are unparalleled in the satellite industry.

Anik E2 is used by Canada’s major broadcasters to distribute their signal to cable systems. That includes pubcaster CBC, private national web CTV and Ontario regional net Global Television, as well as specialty channels such as MuchMusic and youth web YTV.

Anik E1 was the first of the two birds to experience technical difficulties. The momentum wheel control system malfunctioned, which caused its signals to be misdirected. The unit stabilizes a satellite to make sure it is pointing in the appropriate direction.

And seven hours after the problem with Anik E1 was corrected, Anik E2 experienced an identical breakdown. That meant television service to most of the country was disrupted.

Signals that were on Anik E2 were transferred to Anik E1 and the Hughes Galaxy spacecraft by Friday evening. Meanwhile, Telesat engineers worked through the weekend to try to restore Anik E2.

Ironically, this is not the first time Telesat has experienced problems with E2. The satellite was not operational for 80 days after its launch 2 1/2 years ago when an antenna failed to open.

Officials say the two incidents are not related, but they have been unable to explain why the breakdown occurred Thursday. They believe the technical difficulties are due to an electromagnetic storm that took place in the vicinity of the satellites. And they have ruled out sabotage, since their command center uses high-security encryption to communicate with the birds.

If the problems with Anik E2 cannot be corrected, it would be at least three years before it could be replaced. And that would affect the prospects for new Canadian specialty services.

The Canadian Radio-Television & Telecommunications Commission, the federal broadcast watchdog, will hear 50 applications for new specialty channels in February. How many new licenses will be awarded depends on how many additional signals the system can accommodate. The demise of Anik E2 means likely capacity problems.

Telesat officials say it is too soon for last rites for the satellite. But they admit the outlook is bleak.

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