Space is running out in orbital parking lot Satellites jockey for profitable slots

September 20, 1993|By Los Angeles Times

It is shaping up as a prizefight in which the prize is literally out of this world.

In one corner is an aging flyweight out of Indonesia called Palapa B1. In the other, a young bruiser called Gorizont 17 from the tiny kingdom of Tonga. The winner will claim a lucrative piece of a dwindling resource: open space in outer space.

The combatants are telecommunication satellites whose owners -- private companies in Indonesia and Indiana -- have stubbornly parked their "birds" in the same orbital slot 22,300 miles above New Guinea. Each is threatening to crank up the volume and drown out the other guy until he gives up and goes away.

The standoff grows from a harsh fact of modern technological society. There is only so much room for satellites in the prime band of space above the Equator called geosynchronous orbit. As the demand for worldwide communications grows, so does the competition for these satellite parking spots.

"Fears that the geosynchronous arc would fill up weren't even considered" when the first telecommunications satellite was lofted into orbit 30 years ago, said Scott Chase, editor of the Maryland-based industry newsletter Via Satellite. "Now, suddenly, it is here."

Strictly speaking, battles over the valuable spots in geosynchronous orbit are forbidden by international treaty. But the agency that administers the pact concedes that it has no way to enforce it -- no earthbound sanctions, no interplanetary police, no orbiting tow trucks.

In the South Pacific standoff, businesses have teamed up with national governments to claim a particularly valuable place in space -- one capable of linking the booming East Asian telecommunications market with North America. In exchange for exercising their rights under international law, the governments share in the considerable profit that a good slot can bring.

"We are rapidly reaching saturation in key parts of the [geosynchronous] arc over Asia, and the congestion will spread west and east from there," said Timothy Logue, a space analyst for the Washington law firm Reid & Priest.

The U.S. Space Command in Colorado says 695 satellites are in geosynchronous orbit, and dozens more are on order or are scheduled to be launched. But because satellites are usually separated by 2 degrees of arc to avoid crossing signals, the number of slots in the 360-degree geosynchronous arc nominally is limited to 180. Many are over open ocean, useless for telecommunications.

For years, this crowding was managed under an international treaty administered by a U.N. agency, the International Telecommunications Union. Satellites sharing a slot must operate on different frequencies or aim their antennas at different parts of the globe. This makes it easier for ground antennas to distinguish among satellites.

But as the conflict above Indonesia demonstrates, those old tricks may not be enough to accommodate everyone who wants to be in space.

Analysts say the treaty was drawn up in another era, when only a handful of wealthy nations possessed satellite technology and the telecommunications industry was dominated by a handful of giant companies, most either owned or strictly regulated by governments.

Now, with deregulation spreading around the globe, aggressive entrepreneurs are jumping into the satellite business. These operators, who are forbidden to claim orbital slots, are shopping among smaller and poorer nations for a sovereign power willing to claim slots for their countries, then turn them over to private companies for a share of the profit.

The tussle between Indonesia and Tonga is not the only case of competing claims. Hong Kong and Thailand are arguing over three slots, while the United States and Malaysia wrestle over two others.

The problem is not strictly lack of space. There is still plenty of room in low-Earth orbit, a shell a few thousand miles thick starting about 1,100 miles above Earth.

The crunch comes in a relatively small but unique part of space, the geosynchronous arc 22,300 miles directly above the Equator. Because of gravity, satellites lined up along the Equator at that altitude -- and only that altitude -- orbit at the same speed Earth rotates. By being in sync with the planet's rotation, satellites in that orbit appear from the ground to be hovering motionless.

Dish antennas can easily find and follow these "stationary" satellites, making them ideal for such tasks as tracking weather fronts.

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