PARIS — The Australian government, acting on behalf of S-band satellite-IoT startup Sirion Global Pty Ltd., is asking international regulators to give Sirion nearly two years more time to start its service despite the fact that the regulatory deadline lapsed in April.
The Australia Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) wants International Telecommunication Union (ITU) regulators to view Sirion’s multiple mishaps — a launch failure in 2017 and satellite in-orbit hiccups since December — as a “force majeure” issue that usually receives deadline extensions.
The ITU has by now become accustomed to imaginative interpretations of what “force majeure” covers. Its Radio Regulations Board (RRB) will take up the Sirion Global/ACMA request at its July 15-19 meeting.
The Sirion Global story goes back many years and includes an attempt by the company to purchase and make us of an otherwise unused medium-Earth-orbit satellite called ICO F2, which is among the several S-band satellite-terrestrial mobile communications projects that was abandoned.
Iin April 2012, Sirion and ACMA filed their reservation for a constellation of satellites using the 2-GHz slice of spectrum with the ITU. That set in motion the usual seven-year ITU countdown to the bringing-into-use deadline of April 2019.
The Sirion Pathfinder 1 satellite was launched in November 2017 aboard a Russian Soyuz 2.1B rocket as part of a ride-share mission with a Russian meteorological satellite as the main passenger.
The rocket failed and all the payloads were lost and Sirion ultimately received a $1 million insurance payout.
As a precaution, Sirion had asked U.S. smallsat builder Astro Digital U.S. Inc. to build a Sirion Pathfinder 2 cubesat. This one faced multiple launch delays and ultimately settled on the Spaceflight Inc. SSO-A ride-share mission aboard a SpaceX Faclon rocket.
This launch was successful, but Sirion Pathfinder 2 has encountered so many on-board issues that, six months later, it has not been able to raise its orbit to the operating altitude or broadcast sufficiently — 90 days is the rule — to satisfy the ITU “bringing into use” requirements.
“As a result, there have been major delays in various post-commissioning activities, including switching on the payload,” ACMA said in a statement to the ITU. “The anomalies… include excessive momentum buildup on all axes, software anomalies in the main bus computer operating system, I2C (a communication standard currently under study for utilization on board spacecraft), communications bus latch ups and smart solar panel lock ups.”
The I2C latch ups are caused by timing errors on the I2C communications bus that control the satellite’s magnetometers and sun sensors, resulting in the loss of attitude control.
Software patches and hardware-anomaly workarounds so far have not produced the desired results and “it remains unclear whether it will be possible to use the satellites to complete bringing into use,” ACMA said.
ACMA provided a letter from Astro Digital Chief Executive Chris Biddy detailing the various issues. Biddy said that while efforts continue to correct the problems and to raise the satellite’s orbit to its operational altitude of 650 kilometers — it’s now at about 585 kilometers with a 97-degree inclination — “it is unknown if and when that will happen.”
ACMA and Sirion are asking for a two-year extension, to April 2021, to build and launch a replacement satellite.
One of Sirion’s sponsors is Australia’s International Livestock Resource and Information Center (ILRIC), which is interested in Sirion’s remote terminal units, designed to be small and autonomous enough to be used as animal tags.