Monday, January 22, 2007

China may well be suffering from not one but two Olympic-sized headaches as the result of losing two satellites lately. The first headache is the result of a decision by China to shoot down an aged Chinese weather satellite in mid-January. This has triggered a storm of protests. But the loss of another Chinese satellite in early November is causing headaches as well, something that China would prefer to keep quiet.

This involved a spanking new Chinese communications satellite, the largest ever built to date by China. Known as Sinosat-2, it was launched on October 29 and weighed more than 5 tons. In a matter of days, however, any celebrating ended rather abruptly. Sinosat-2 suffered a complete failure and soon was hurtling back into the earth’s atmosphere.

Sinosat-2 started to take shape back in late 2002 at the Chinese Research Institute of Space Technology with a preliminary launch date of 2005. Its mission was to initiate true direct satellite TV services for millions of rural Chinese, while increasing the availability of new broadband services in remote regions as well.

Despite initial reports that Sinosat-2 was experiencing problems, Chinese space officials elected to remain silent for two weeks or more — until late November — until accounts of this Chinese satellite in distress began appearing in the Asian press.

Keep in mind that the global satellite industry works hard to avoid such failures, and yet when they happen, they are reported instantly. In 2006, for example, both Intelsat, one of the two largest global satellite fleet operators, and Arabsat, which operates several satellites serving the Middle East, lost a satellite.

Why was China reluctant to admit that Sinosat-2 was in serious trouble? First, this satellite represented China’s first flight of its new Dongfanghong or DFH-4 spacecraft bus. Second, Sinosat-2 was the first of a new generation of jamming-resistant satellites created by China after satellite broadcasts were jammed in 2002. These incidents were characterized by the Chinese government as deliberate acts of sabotage carried out by the outlawed Falun Gong involving a satellite known as Sinosat-1.

A third factor is the simple fact the launch of Sinosat-2 was timed to allow for expanded TV broadcast coverage of the 2008 Olympics in China. In other words, if the 2008 Olympics is accepted as China’s premier event of this decade, Beijing’s planned presentation of this monumental sporting event has been dealt a major setback.

In a nutshell, Sinosat-2’s solar panels and antennae did not deploy as planned. China has two additional satellites scheduled for launched this year. In May, Sinosat-3 will be launched, and Chinasat 9 is scheduled to fly later in the year. But together these will not replace Sinosat-2, a process Chinese officials now admit may take as long as three years.

Given that the noise level in rural China in general is rising — some say rising fast, as there are more and more Western media reports of rural unrest in China — there is an added dimension to the loss of Sinosat-2 distinctly political in nature. After all, an aggressive public-relations campaign had been undertaken by China’s state-controlled media. Sinosat-2 was presented as a high profile project, and its ability to transform TV and broadband service in remote areas was proclaimed well in advance. Beijing must now grapple with this satellite’s silence, knowing a light has gone out, and that consequences cannot be simply dismissed out of hand.

An element of satellite diplomacy looms here as well. The pending launch this year by China of a new communications satellite for the Nigerian government may be postponed as well. This satellite is part of an elaborate campaign to boost China’s presence in Africa and will be Nigeria’s first communications satellite. The Export and Import Bank of China is providing $200 million in preferential credit to make this project fly.

But this satellite uses the same DFH-4 bus as Sinosat-2 and may have to be re-engineered based on feedback from a Sinosat-2 review board. Attempts to verify this with Chinese and African satellite contacts are ongoing. Neither Nigeria nor China has issued a public statement on the matter.

Silence again in this instance — as in the case of the antisatellite test — may underscore the delicacy of the situation, again, given China’s objectives and its increasing support for joint satellite ventures. Along with Turkey, Algeria and the United Kingdom, for example, both China and Nigeria have contributed mini-satellites to the multinational satellite venture known as the Disaster Monitoring Constellation.

Possible organizational changes throughout the entire Chinese satellite community in the aftermath of the Sinosat-2 failure cannot be ruled out entirely either, despite the fact China successfully launched a new weather satellite shortly thereafter.

China could not help but watch closely as the launch of a Japanese experimental satellite known Engineering Test Satellite-8 (Kiku-8) went forward in mid-December. After all, a press release from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) specifically mentioned that the Kiku-8 solar array deployment was successfully completed. Because very large antennae and reflectors sustain this mission, JAXA had tested deployment of a smaller-scale version of the Kiku-8 antenna array in space.

China watched these events while observing a banner on JAXA’s Kiku-8 Web site that reads — “Opening the door to the future by deploying big antennas and providing security.” JAXA put this up long before Sinosat-2 moved to the launch pad, and long before China pushed the button and dissolved an old weather satellite. It has taken on new meaning in recent days.

Thus far, Japan has resisted joining the Asia-Pacific Space Cooperation Organization (APSCO) which China created, part of its above-mentioned eager exercise of satellite diplomacy. Several other Asian countries have signed on — including Turkey, Thailand and Pakistan.

China’s enthusiastic endorsement of joint space activities and satellite partnerships stands in stark contrast to its awkward and unwelcome antisatellite test. China may deem the test a success, but in the context of the Asian space race, which includes India — also not an APSCO signatory — the timing seems terrible.

For China, you would think one Olympic-sized satellite headache stemming from loss of Sinosat-2 would be enough. Instead, now they have two. The lesson is simple. It is far better to launch a satellite successfully than to shoot one down.

Peter J. Brown is a free-lance writer in Maine who specializes in satellite technology and writes frequently about Asian satellite ventures.

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