Sino Setback - Advanced Chinese Space Technology Initiative Is Off To A Disastrous Start

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Editor's note: the following story appears in the 4 December edition of Aviation Week and Space Technology and online at aviationnow.com.

The catastrophic breakdown of China's new Sinosat 2 direct broadcast satellite is the worst spacecraft failure in the history of the Chinese space program and a major setback to China's development of a new generation of larger more powerful civilian and military satellites.

The failure of this largest, most complex spacecraft ever developed by the Chinese—launched by China's most powerful rocket—portends a shakeup in the management of Chinese space system testing and quality control.

The spacecraft's solar arrays spanning more than 100 ft. and its large antennas all failed to deploy as Sinosat 2 was maneuvered toward its geosynchronous orbit station west of Sumatra.

Built by the China Academy of Space Technology (CAST), a huge Chinese military and aerospace contractor, Sinosat 2 was to be operated by the Beijing- based Sino Satellite Communications Ltd. (Sinosat).

The loss will set back Chinese plans to deploy a domestically built spacecraft to deliver direct-to-home television services to millions of Chinese from Tibet in the west to the highly populated east coast. Sinosat 2 was to transmit television signals to antennas as small as 18 in. dia. and provide television and digital broadband multimedia services to Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan in addition to mainland China. It was also destined to provide television, for the first time, to China's vast rural population unable to access cable. Before launch, the Chinese estimated Sinosat 2 services by 2010 would reach 100 million households, the equivalent of 300-400 million people.

As a fallback, Sinosat plans to launch Sinosat 3, a much smaller and different type satcom next spring. But that satellite, to be based on a mid-1990s Chinese military satcom design, is not intended to be a complete backup to the capabilities of the more advanced spacecraft. Development of a full replacement will take three years.

To illustrate scale, if Sinosat 2 was unfolded at mid floor of a basketball court, its solar arrays would have extended well past the baskets on either side with the center-mounted antennas extending to half the floor's width.

China is assessing whether to continue diagnostic testing with what little electricity remains, or to dive the 5-ton platform back into the atmosphere for a reentry that would prevent space debris and clear that slot for follow-on spacecraft.

Designed for 15 years of operations, Sinosat 2 began to fail after only about a week aloft in early November.

A failure of such magnitude could have been caused by a major electrical or computer fault, or even a collision of the booster nose faring with the satellite during launch on its Long March 3B booster. Command errors have also been the cause of major U.S. European satcom losses in the past.

The mission was launched Oct. 29 from the Xichang space center and solar array and antenna deployments were to have taken place into November.

It is not uncommon for spacecraft to have individual hinges and latches on single solar arrays or antennas hang up. Such a mechanism failure is, for example, suspected in the apparent loss of the NASA Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft (AW&ST Nov. 27, p. 53). But to have all major solar array and antenna deployments halted by a broader failure is almost unheard of in modern satellite operations.

The Chinese government only acknowledged the loss Nov. 28 after word began to leak in space business circles and was aired by the Hong Kong-based Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy, a Chinese human rights watchdog organization.

In U.S. or Western European terms, the total mission hardware and development costs would total about $500 million, but the Chinese acknowledge about $190 million in costs based on the value in Yuan. However, the loss to China's space program will be higher than its monetary value.

Sinosat 2 was to be the vanguard for major new Chinese space developments more in line with existing U.S. and Western European spacecraft. In communications satellite terms, it was to be a Chinese equivalent to spacecraft like the Alcatel Space Bus 3000, the Boeing Model 702 and the Lockheed Martin A2100AX.

It was also to be the first operational use of China's complex Dongfanghong ("The East is Red") DFH-4 spacecraft bus under design for years by a new generation of young Chinese managers and engineers. Hundreds of Chinese personnel have been working not only at CAST but as vendors on DFH-4 hardware.

The DFH-4 is important for future civil and military space operations requiring extensive electrical power and robust attitude control. Sinosat 2's long solar arrays were to be capable of generating 10,000 watts, even after 15 years in space.

But now the new high-powered bus and the engineering and quality control abilities of CAST facility that built it are under a cloud.

An official at CAST in Beijing flatly refused to speak with Aviation Week & Space Technology. "We're very busy with the investigation," she said.

Although it is a painful way to initiate reform, such a major loss has prompted Chinese aerospace to rise to higher standards in the past.

Chinese quality control measures were tightened across the Long March booster program after fatal launch accidents at Xichang in the early 1990s. The international-user community became openly critical about quality control, and test and oversight deficiencies were corrected. As a result, the Long March program has conducted 10 years of launch operations without a failure.

The loss of such a critical spacecraft could spark similar reforms in the satellite industry as China moves into development of other major new reconnaissance navigation, military/civil communications and remote-sensing spacecraft (AW&ST Oct. 20, 2003, p. 28). Japan went through the same thing when in the mid 1990s it ran into serious failures as it began upgrading to more modern spacecraft.

The failure will also delay the widespread delivery of Chinese-developed direct broadcast satellite services to the citizenry for at least three years, according to Fan Xinming of Sinosat. "The company is drafting a replacement plan. But the substitute satellite will not be a carbon copy of the previous one and we are expecting more technical upgrades," he told Xinhua, the government news agency. "We will not lose confidence in the domestic space manufacturing industry despite the setback," he said.

Sinosat 2 was to be key in broadcasting the 2008 Olympics Games in Beijing to the Chinese masses.

Other spacecraft may pick up the slack. But anything like the loss of Sinosat 2 that shakes up communist Chinese government planning for a perfect presentation carries political implications for Chinese aerospace technology managers—a few of whom who may be looking at a forced early retirement because of the failure.

According to Sinosat managers, the spacecraft is now in a "quasi geosynchronous orbit" at about 92.2 deg. E. Long., meaning its positioning was also not completed after the failure.

Sinosat 2 carries 22 transponders. Eighteen of these were to operate at 36 MHz. while the others were to function at 54 MHz. It was initially commanded from the Sino Satellite Communications Co. control center north of Beijing.

Sino Satellite Communications was formed in 1994 in connection with Commission of Defense Science & Technology (Costind), and the China Aerospace Corp. The company was originally heavily financed by German banks.

The one other older and much smaller satellite still in operation, Sinosat 1, was built at Cannes, France, in the late 1990s by what was then Aerospatiale.

The Sinosat 3 satellite that China hopes to launch in May to help recover some of the communications satellite service lost will be based on the DFH-3 military spacecraft bus. That spacecraft, however, will not be nearly as capable as Sinosat 2 was planned to be.

"The Sinosat 2 failure won't have any influence on plans for Sinosat 3," Fan told Aviation Week & Space Technology. "Sinosat 2 used the DFH-4 platform, but Sinosat 3 will use DFH-3, which is 'mature.'"

Copyright 2006 Aviation Week and Space Technology.


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