Satellite Malfunctions

Niki S. / Physics #336 / 7 April 1997
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[ Satellites Fall to the Earth ][ Getting lost in Space ]
[ Repairing Satellites ][ How Satellites Break ]
Satellites are ingenious creations, but that does not make them unbreakable. There have been malfunctions and faults in satellites. Despite these malfunctions and faults there are new and many ways to repair these satellites.

Satellites Fall to the Earth

Satellites remain in orbit until their velocity decreases and the gravitational force pulls them down into a dense part of the atmosphere. It slows down because of friction of air particles. The satellite quickly compresses air in front of it , the air becomes so hot that most or all of the satellite burns up. "A satellite burns up when it re-enters the earth's atmosphere. The outer surface is heated up by air friction and starts to glow. As air thickens the heating affect increases. The satellite breaks up in a fiery shower. Some pieces may reach the ground intact" (Encyclopedia Britannica 1279).

Getting lost in Space

It is possible foe satellites to get lost and lose their path in space. Sometimes satellites can get off track. "The smallest inaccuracy in a calculation or the malfunction of a rocket can cause the space vehicle to veer of target" (Walers , Tom pg unavailable).

Repairing Satellites

Guidance systems are installed in satellites , which can change velocity and direction. Satellites have guidance systems to keep them on course. An example of a type of guidance system is radio-command guidance systems. Changes in velocity and direction are broadcast by the spacecraft to a station on the ground. An inertial guidance system makes the velocity and direction of the satellite be measured by onboard computers and flight controllers to prevent the satellite from being thrown off track.

There are some time limits for a satellite to be repaired. If, for example , it were to be repaired by the purchasing or building of a slimmed down version of Anik-E it would be attempted to get it working within 12 to 14 months. If part of a satellite breaks down, the satellite owner will usually continue to operate it. This is because ground controllers can repair or reprogram the satellite. There have been cases where space shuttle crews have retrieved and repaired a satellite in space. When a satellite needs to be repaired the necessary adjustments are broadcast back to the craft and control motors on the craft carry out the instructions. This may be directed by ground personnel or it can also be automatic. If a satellite can no longer perform usefully and cannot be repaired or reprogrammed, operators from the control center will send a signal to shut the satellite off.

How Satellites Break

The most common way for a satellite to break is by the disconnection of solar panels. "Network Force must be conditioned to deal with continuously fluctuating, adaptive design of the overall system. The loss of a Network Limb, interim levels of less-than dominant understanding and otherwise malfunctions or battle damage" (Tempestilli , Mark pg unavailable). "Solar panel becomes disconnected from AnikE-1 knocking out more than 50% of its capacity" (Knight Riddle pg unavailable).


Satellites are a very useful and reliable invention but do contain a number of malfunctions. This does not mean that these malfunctions cannot be repaired. Not only can they be repaired but they can be repaired by crews in space. Technology has allowed us to invent satellites and now technology has allowed us to repair and update them. Just like people old satellites will eventually die and new ones are constantly being born.