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A Malaysian satellite has died in space and will meet a cold grave

An artist's illustration of a Measat-3 communications satellite in orbit.
(Image credit: Measat)

A Malaysian satellite will settle into a graveyard orbit following a mysterious "anomaly" that struck it down in space.

The nearly 15-year-old Measat-3 communications satellite suffered an unexplained issue on June 21, knocking out service for its customers. It was brought under ground control June 24 but hasn't been operational since, according to updates from the company.

With the satellite playing dead and a "root cause" investigation still ongoing by Measat and satellite maker Boeing, however, Measat said Aug. 6 it decided to proceed with a deorbit.

"Further testing and recovery efforts found that the satellite could not re-enter service. The satellite will be de-orbited in the following weeks," Measat said in the update. Because of the satellite's previous altitude, that likely means a graveyard orbit, rather than destruction in Earth's atmosphere.

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Measat-3 launched Dec. 11, 2006 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, the same launch center where Soyuz spacecraft periodically send crews to the International Space Station. The spacecraft serves more than 100 countries in Asia, Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Satellite TV operator Astro was among the customers affected, according to a local news report citing tweets from Astro.

Most customers were transferred to backup satellites by mid-July, but the satellite was by then tumbling in its orbit since at least July 1, according to ExoAnalytic Solutions, a space tracking company. "It's rare to see one come back from this stage," Bill Therien, ExoAnalytic Solutions executive vice president of engineering, told SpaceNews July 17.

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ExoAnalytic further noted there was no debris around Measat-3 that hinted at an in-space collision that may have caused the service problem. The satellite also has no near-term collision risk with any other space object, ExoAnalytic said. A later report from SpaceNews on Aug. 11, quoting insurers, suggested the satellite may have run out of fuel earlier than expected in its geosynchronous orbit.

Measat said Aug. 6 it is readying a new satellite called Measat-3D, built by Airbus Defence and Space, "for early 2022."

Correction: This article was updated to clarify that Measat-3 will not burn up in Earth's atmosphere but instead be moved to a so-called graveyard orbit.

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Elizabeth Howell

Elizabeth Howell is a contributing writer for who is one of the few Canadian journalists to report regularly on space exploration. She is the author or co-author of several books on space exploration. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. from the University of North Dakota in Space Studies, and an M.Sc. from the same department. She also holds a bachelor of journalism degree from Carleton University in Canada, where she began her space-writing career in 2004. Besides writing, Elizabeth teaches communications at the university and community college level, and for government training schools. To see her latest projects, follow Elizabeth on Twitter at @howellspace.