Satellite spat gets patently silly

15 Apr 2008

In the satellite business, sometimes things go wrong and a satellite goes bad. Sometimes the problem is fixable, sometimes it's not. There are all sorts of reasons why satellites can't be salvaged - but "institutional disinterest and an aging patent of questionable validity" is a new one on me.

That was the strange story of SES Americom's AMC-14, which was launched in March but fell short of its minimum geostationary transfer orbit. According to SpaceDaily, the one thing that could have saved it was a lunar flyby process that would bring the bird to a stable GEO orbit where SES could have gotten at least four years of service out of it.

Just one problem: that process is patented by Boeing, which is being sued by SES for $50 million over a completely unrelated matter involving New Skies.

Which more or less led to this exchange:

Boeing: Drop the suit and we'll make the patent available.

SES: Like hell.

Boeing: Sorry about your satellite. See you in court.

I'm paraphrasing. Obviously.

Anyway, despite the patent reportedly being based on legally frail ground (as a lunar flyby is a process using basic physics), SES decided it was easier to cash in its insurance policy and write off the AMC-14 as a total loss - which it did on Sunday.

Which I think means the insurance companies are going to have a good year.

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