Monday, December 21, 2009

Space - Expanding The Frontiers Of Risk

When an 84kg lump of metal was shot into space in 1957, few predicted how satellites would revolutionise our world. Since Sputnik entered orbit and its first crackly signal beeps were picked up back on earth, we have come to rely on satellites for what we see and how we communicate - and even for what the weather will be like.

Their ability to warn of impending disasters has saved countless lives. They may even be used to help save the planet. Satellites could be used to generate solar power that could reduce our reliance on harmful fossil fuels, a 2007 study commissioned by the US Department of Defense concluded.

Our insatiable appetite for new technology is driving demand for a new generation of bigger, more complex satellites. But even after 50 years' experience, launching and operating satellites remains a risky business and there are new perils on the horizon.

The new-generation satellites cost as much as $350m - two or three times as much as traditional satellites - and with the Ariane 5 rocket able to deliver two satellites into space in one mission, a problem during launch could be catastrophic and wipe out much of the available insurance capacity.

Once in orbit, if a new 'processed payload' satellite suffered even a relatively minor loss of power, a number of its transponders (which carry the communication signals) may have to be shut down to allow its power-thirsty digital processor to remain running.

This may reduce the satellite's capacity to such an extent that it is rendered largely ineffective, years before the end of its projected lifespan. It may take only a 30% loss in power for it to become an effective insurance write-off, says David Wade, space underwriter at the Atrium Space Insurance Consortium.

Heavy Solar Weather Ahead
Just as property underwriters fret about how changes in sea surface temperatures and wind shear can create more hurricanes, satellite underwriters worry about variations in the sun that can create catastrophic weather in space.

The Sun's intense atmosphere causes solar flares, proton flares and the solar wind, all of which can wreak immense damage on spacecraft and satellites.

Their impact and frequency increase as the sun reaches its peak during an 11-year solar cycle. The next 'solar maximum' is predicted to be in May 2013, according to a recent panel of experts.
Underwriters will consider whether to reduce their aggregate exposures as the solar maximum nears, bringing with it an increased threat of damage to satellites, says Simon Clapham, Head of the Marine Division at Liberty Syndicates.

Lloyd's insurers are prepared for a welter of claims resulting from a large proton flare from the sun that would affect every satellite in orbit, creating a loss of power that would lead to a 5% financial loss on each of the 160 or so insured satellites.

No comments:

Post a Comment