Engineers analyze failure on SiriusXM satellite launched from Florida last month

Artist’s illustration of the SXM 7 satellite with its solar panels and S-band antenna deployed. Credit: Maxar

Ground teams are evaluating a payload failure on a Maxar-built SiriusXM radio broadcasting satellite that launched from Cape Canaveral in December on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, officials said Wednesday.

SiriusXM and Maxar officials did not disclose the cause of the problem with the SXM 7 satellite, but SiriusXM said the failure will not adversely impact its radio broadcast service .

Built by Maxar in Palo Alto, California, the SXM 7 satellite successfully launched Dec. 13 from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station into an elliptical geostationary transfer orbit, then used its on-board engine to reach an orbit more than 22,000 miles (nearly 36,000 kilometers) over the equator.

SiriusXM announced the “failure of certain SXM 7 payload units” in a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission on Wednesday.

“An evaluation of SXM 7 is underway,” the company said. “The full extent of the damage to SXM 7 is not yet known.”

A Maxar spokesperson said the company’s teams are “working closely with SiriusXM to diagnose the problem and evaluate any potential damage to the satellite and its mission.

“Our focus remains on safely completing the commissioning of the satellite and optimizing its performance,” the Maxar spokesperson said in a written statement.

Neither company answered questions about which payload units failed during in-orbit testing of the SXM 7 satellite, which SiriusXM said began Jan. 4.

Once in geostationary orbit, the SXM 7 satellite — based on Maxar’s 1300-series spacecraft design — was expected to unfurl a large deployable S-band antenna made by L3Harris to broadcast radio signals to receivers SiriusXM’s customers. The S-band reflector is required for the satellite to beam high-power signals to users with small terminals on the ground, such as satellite radio receivers on cars.

It was not immediately clear if the S-band antenna might be at fault for SXM 7’s woes. The failure is not related to the satellite’s launch.

A Falcon 9 rocket lifts off Dec. 13 with the SXM 7 satellite. Credit: SpaceX

Maxar said last year that it discovered an “anomaly” during a test on one of the company’s commercial satellite programs. While Maxar never publicly confirmed the identify of the satellite, it is believed to have been SiriusXM’s SXM 7 spacecraft.

Dan Jablonsky, Maxar’s president and CEO, said in an earnings call with investment analysts last May that the company set aside $14 million for “rework” on the unspecified commercial satellite. Ground testing uncovered an “undetected issue with a design that goes back over two years, but is just now surfacing and final testing,” Jablonsky said.

Later in the earnings call last May, Jablonsky said the problem was unique to a particular satellite program and design.

In the earnings call for the following quarter last August, Jablonsky said the $14 million Maxar designated to address the satellite test anomaly was “sufficient,” and added that Maxar was “looking forward to getting the satellite shipped and launched.”

At the time of the August conference call, the SXM 7 satellite was the only Maxar-built spacecraft due to ship to its launch site before the end of 2020. And the unique design of the SXM 7 satellite, with its large deployable antenna, also fit with Jablonsky’s statements.

A twin SiriusXM satellite named SXM 8, also manufactured by Maxar, is scheduled to launch from Cape Canaveral on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket later this year.

SXM 7 was expected to replace the XM 3 radio broadcasting satellite at 85 degrees west longitude, officials said last year. The Boeing-built XM 3 satellite launched in 2005 aboard a Sea Launch Zenit 3SL rocket.

The SXM 7 radio broadcasting satellite. Credit: Maxar

“SXM 7 was intended to supplement the existing fleet of SiriusXM satellites,” said Kevin Bruns, a SiriusXM spokesperson, in a statement Wednesday. “Our XM 3 and XM 4 satellites are healthy and fully operational, and are expected to support our satellite radio service for several years.

“SiriusXM also operates the XM 5 satellite as an in-orbit spare, which is capable of supplementing the SiriusXM satellite fleet,” Bruns said.

With SXM 7 and SXM 8, SiriusXM said last month its radio broadcast service would be secured through at least 2036.

SiriusXM said Wednesday that it purchased $225 million in insurance policies covering the SXM 7 satellite through launch and the first year of in-orbit operations.

“We have notified the underwriters of these policies of a potential claim with respect to SXM 7,” SiriusXM said.

Maxar said its contract with SiriusXM for the construction of the SXM 7 satellite include “industry-standard provisions,” including the “transfer of risk of loss upon launch.”

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.