BOGOTA – Venezuela’s only telecommunications satellite has veered off its orbit and stopped working, creating a logistical headache for the cash-strapped South American nation.
The Chinese-built satellite was launched among much fanfare in 2008 under the watch of former President Hugo Chavez, who said that the six-ton machine would help to “construct 21st century socialism” and contribute to Venezuela’s “independence and sovereignty.”
But as Chavez’s socialist revolution decays under U.S. sanctions and years of economic mismanagement, the nation’s prized satellite is tumbling in space and has become useless three years before its planned expiration date of 2023.
The satellite was helping to provide internet services to rural areas that are not connected to fiber optic cables, and was also being used to broadcast Venezuela’s heavily politicized state-run television channels into poor or rural homes that have no access to cable TV.
“Now the government will need to resort to international satellite providers to distribute its content” to the poorest Venezuelans, said William Peña a Venezuelan journalist who specializes on telecommunications. But migrating to commercial satellites will cost millions of dollars and could be hindered by U.S. sanctions.
State-run television will continue to be broadcast through cable operators and old-fashioned antennas. But Peña said that it will be harder to access in some parts of the country where telecommunications infrastructure is crumbling. A report published in 2018 by Venezuela's official National Telecommunicatrions Commission noted that only six of 10 homes in the country have paid television services like cable or DirectTV.
The satellite’s problems were first noticed on March 13, when ExoAnalytic Solutions, a California company that tracks global satellite traffic, reported that VeneSat-1 had veered away from its position at 78 degrees west longitude above Venezuela and was tumbling westward.
The findings were also confirmed by AGI a Pennsylvania-based satellite tracking company. Both companies found that the satellite was significantly veering off its programmed course, with its orbit at least 50 kilometers (30 miles) m above the arc used by most telecommunications satellites.
Venezuela’s Ministry of Science confirmed in a statement on Wednesday that the Simon Bolivar Satellite – named after Venezuela’s independence hero – was no longer operational. But it did not provide details on why it had gone haywire.
William Therien vice president of engineering for ExoAnalytic Solutions, said that satellites could be forced out of their planned orbits by factors that include overheating, a component failure or impact from micro meteors.
Analysts in Venezuela believe that the satellite could have been lost due to a shortage of fuel.
The satellite was placed at an orbital slot that was not ideal for providing services to Venezuela, meaning that more fuel had to be spent to keep it on track.
“Many people in the industry thought it would not last the full 15 years” said Patrick Boza, a Venezuelan telecommunications consultant. “When this satellite was put in orbit, more fuel than usual was spent trying to stabilize it.”
The Venezuelan satellite was placed on 78 degrees west longitude, an orbital slot assigned to the nation of Uruguay. Peña said that at a better slot, given Venezuela’s geographical position, would have been at 68 degrees west.
But that slot belonged to the Andean Community of Nations, a multi-national bloc that Venezuela was in the process of leaving because the group was pushing for a free-trade agreement with the United States.
“Venezuela struck a deal with Uruguay because it was an ideologically friendly nation,” Peña said. “But it was not the ideal position. The satellite fell to ideological arrogance.”