Nigeria's multi-million dollar
communication satellite is spinning out of control just 18 months
after launch. The Chinese built Nigcomsat at a cost to Nigeria of
$340 million. It was expected to provide broadband Internet and
communications for government agencies. The government says the
situation is under control and the satellite is only experiencing
power problems. Critics say the device was a white elephant project
that was hurriedly executed by former president Olusegun Obasanjo.
Ceruzzi is curator of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. He talked with VOA English to
Africa reporter Chinedu Offor about what
could be wrong with the Nigerian satellite.
satellite, once it is placed in orbit, has to be managed so that it points in
the right direction, just like driving a car down the road. The antennas have
to point to the ground, the solar panels have to point to the sun and they
(must) have fuel on board (that) powers tiny rockets that do that or other
means of stabilizing it. But sometimes they run out of fuel or Sat system
breaks down. Then it stays there in
orbit and begins to tumble, if it loses contact with the solar panels or (they
are) no longer pointing at the sun, then it losses electrical power. If the
antennas are no longer pointing at the ground, then there is no way to
communicate with it. So it becomes kind of dangerous piece of junk flying at
17,000 miles an hour; it can be a serious problem."
says it is unusual for new satellites to fail. "In the early days of the space
program things like that happened a lot, actually, unfortunately, but over the
years they have gotten more reliable, but it does happen. It has happened from
time to time and the other issue of course is that all satellites, eventually
run out of fuel and they potentially can have the same fate unless people do
things to actively manage them for that day. But for something to fail so soon
after launch is rare today but it does happen".
Ceruzzi says it is difficult to have
an advance warnings of the precise location where a satellite might come down.
Scientists may have such a warning "only in the few hours or so before it
actually comes down. It could stay up there for months or years even and then
atmospheric drag will slowly bring it out of orbit. And then, only at the very
last moment, do you really know where it is going to hit."