UPDATE 4: Telesat satellite malfunctions

Elizabeth Howell
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Ottawa firm hopes to restore service late Thursday

Thousands of Canadians are without telephone, cable and Internet service following a malfunction on a Telesat-owned-and-operated satellite.

An artist's conception of Anik F2. (Provided)

A problem on Anik F2 knocked out northern long-distance telephone and Internet service in 56 northern satellite communities starting just after 6:30 a.m. Thursday.

Cable television service on the satellite is also disrupted across the country, including customers for Shaw Direct. The Canadian Press' wire service and data services for mining companies are similarly affected.

"There was an issue on the spacecraft, and it went into safe mode," said John Flaherty, a spokesperson for Telesat, in an OBJ interview.

"It shut itself down and turned itself towards the sun. The solar arrays can keep the batteries charged, and nothing happens to the spacecraft. We've been in contact with the satellite and are in the process of essentially rebooting it."

Engineers are hoping to bring it online by the end of Thursday, he added. This is the first outage Anik F2 has experienced since its launch in 2004.

"This type of thing rarely happens, and that's why it gets so much attention – because it's so rare and there are so many people affected by it."

No root cause has been pinpointed for the satellite's malfunction, but he said he had heard from engineers that it was not related to a solar storm taking place early Thursday morning. Storms of this kind can occasionally charge surfaces on the spacecraft and cause electronics to short out.

When asked for more details on how Telesat knows, he responded that the company is focusing more on restoring service at this point and would work with manufacturer Boeing Space Systems to determine the cause later.

Earlier on Thursday, Northwestel – a major client of Anik F2, which has a large number of customers on it – said it had been in constant contact with Telesat since the outage began.

"The good news in all of this it's not a lost satellite; (Telesat) tells us they were communicating with it," said Emily Younker, a spokesperson for Anik F2 customer Northwestel, the sole provider for northern Internet and data and the main provider for phone services.

Northwestel's outage spanned the northern territories of Canada as well as the upper latitudes of Alberta. Ms. Younker described this as the first such widespread outage that she was aware of, but added the communities are used to shorter local outages due to weather or other factors.

"A lot of these communities are very remote, and traditionally very isolated areas, and very self-sufficient areas."

Anik F2 provides services across North America in the C-band, Ku-band and Ka-bands. Launched in 2004, it was built by Boeing and the antenna array was subcontracted to Ottawa's EMS Technologies Inc. 

The 5,900 kg satellite was the world's largest communications satellite at the time of launch, and the first one to use the Ka-band, a newer and faster standard for delivering multimedia services than the Ku-band.

Telesat has experienced outages before. In January 1994, a large solar storm knocked out service from both Aniks E1 and E2, temporarily wiping out much of Canada's broadcast industry as 50 television stations, 100 radio channels and most wire services went dark.

An investigation determined the satellites' momentum wheel control systems, which control the direction in which they point, were affected by the storm.

Anik E1 was fixed a few hours later when a backup system was brought online. Rescuing Anik E2, which had both its prime and backup systems disrupted, took several months.

Telesat currently has 12 satellites in orbit, with Telstar 14R the most recent launch. The satellite's solar panel failed to deploy properly, but Telstar will be able to take on most of its projected capacity despite the power problem.

In August, Telesat reported quarterly earnings of $21.7 million compared with a loss of $63 million last year. The company is pondering strategic alternatives for the business, but ruled out a takeover after entertaining several offers.

New York-based Loral Space & Communications Inc. is Telesat's majority economic owner, and Canada's Public Sector Pension Investment Board holds a majority voting interest.

Organizations: Telesat

Geographic location: Yukon, Northwest Territories, Nunavut North America

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