Classes were canceled for thousands of students who participate in distance learning programs when the guidance system aboard a U.S. satellite malfunctioned on May 19.

Galaxy 4, owned and operated by PanAmSat of Greenwich, Conn., tilted away from Earth at 6:13 EST, wiping out broadcasts across the country and proving how fragile wireless communications can be.

The loss of the satellite–which effectively pulled the plug on about 90 percent of the paging network in the U.S. and disrupted broadcasts by CBS, CNN, and National Public Radio–also hit many schools.

One of the programs affected by the malfunction was SCOLA–Satellite Communications for Learning. SCOLA relied on the Galaxy 4 satellite to broadcast authentic foreign programming to several thousand K-12 schools.

“The satellite was our only communica tions link, and now it’s gone,” said Francis Labja, director of operations for SCOLA.

SCOLA is a non-profit educational consortium that receives and re-transmits television programming from more than 50 different countries in their native languages. SCOLA’s broadcasts are used to teach or reinforce curriculum in many social studies and foreign language classes in the U.S.

Contingency plan

One day after the malfunction, PanAmSat chief technology officer Robert Bednarek issued a statement outlining a contingency plan for the Galaxy 4. Bednarek said that another satellite, the Galaxy 6, would be moved out of its current orbit to replace the Galaxy 4, which remained inoperable.

The repositioning of Galaxy 6 was expected to take as many as six days, Bednarek said. Meanwhile, Galaxy 4 customers scrambled to make alternative broadcasting arrangements.

Labja said he’s explored other ways of providing satellite transmission to SCOLA’s participating schools. But unlike CBS or CNN, SCOLA cannot afford to make other arrangements. Labja expected SCOLA’s service to be out until at least May 26.

PanAmSat’s decision to replace the Galaxy 4 with the Galaxy 6 triggered a whole new set of problems for schools. Those that relied on the Galaxy 6 for their distance learning programs found their service yanked out from under them to save what PanAmSat considered a more vital group of customers.

The Virginia Satellite Education Network (VSEN), which broadcasts foreign language and Advanced Placement classes to 2,000 middle and high school students in 30 states through the Galaxy 6, was out of service for two days before its director, Greg Weisiger, could make other arrangements to transmit the network’s signal. Weisiger ended up finding time on another satellite, but only temporarily.

Telstar redux

“Now I know what Telstar’s users went through,” said Weisiger. The Telstar 4 satellite was damaged by solar winds in January 1997, disrupting classes broadcast by the Satellite Education Resources Consortium and Oklahoma State University (OSU), among many others.

OSU also uses the Galaxy 4 to broadcast its “German by Satellite” program to hundreds of high school students, but that course had ended just six days before Galaxy 4 malfunctioned.

A spokeswoman for PanAmSat said Galaxy 6 was a “preemptable” satellite, meaning it had been designated as a potential back-up if one of the company’s 16 other satellites should fail. PanAmSat recommends that broadcasters write contingency clauses into their contracts if they opt for service through a preemptable satellite.

PanAmSat has no plans to launch a replacement satellite for the Galaxy 6 before the end of next year, the spokeswoman said.



Virginia Satellite Education Network