Nigeria's Chinese-built satellite goes dark
In May 2007, the Nigerian government rejoiced as the Chinese-built Nigeria Communications Satellite - 1 (NIGCOMSAT-1), was sent into orbit by a Chinese rocket at the Xichang launch facility. Nigeria was upbeat and looking forward to 15 years of advanced telecommunications service, thanks to a satellite which China, along with sending into space, had funded to the tune of well over $200 million.
But in early November, after NIGCOMSAT-1 had been in service for only 18 months, all the dreams were dashed. NIGCOMSAT-1 went out of service completely with its onboard electrical power supply damaged significantly due to a malfunctioning solar array. Rumors flew that it was almost completely out of control and perhaps a threat to nearby satellites. These were addressed by Nigerian and later Chinese officials, but only after a day had passed, and after that only a series of denials were issued.
Just a week earlier, the Chinese had launched a new communications satellite for Venezuela known as Venesat-1 which used the same core technology or "bus" as NIGCOMSAT-1. If the sequence of events was reversed, and Venezuela's first communications satellite was still on the ground when the NIGCOMSAT-1 breakdown took place, there is a strong possibility that Chinese satellite engineers would have postponed the launch of Venesat-1 to make sure that the same problem would not surface again.
Now, with the window of opportunity for a thorough pre-launch assessment of Venesat-1 lost, its operators in Caracas are almost completely powerless to control its fate, and no doubt evaluating the need for a new game-plan.
There is also little to cheer about for the teams at the China Academy of Space Technology (CAST) and The China Great Wall Industry Corp, (CGWIC), which worked so hard on developing and building this next generation of very large Chinese communications satellites - known as the DongFangHong-4 (DFH-4) series. To be clear, while DFH Satellite Co Ltd is listed as a CAST unit, which in turn has its own parent company, the state-owned China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation, CGWIC serves as China's lone manufacturer of communication satellites for export.
Big problems started in 2006
In late October 2006, the Chinese launched Sinosat-2 with great fanfare. After all, this was the first DFH-4 launch and it was the largest communications satellite that China had ever put in space. Sinosat-2 was planned to greatly expand Chinese domestic TV coverage in advance of the 2008 Olympics, among other things. However, immediately after launch, the satellite's solar panel and antennae deployment was a complete failure, leading to the total loss of the satellite, which had been launched a year behind schedule for various reasons.
What we saw this month unfolding in Nigeria was an unfortunate reminder of the Sinosat-2 loss, not necessarily just because of what happened, but how it was handled. For a day or so, the status of NIGSATCOM-1 was a complete mystery with no officials from Nigeria or CGWIC willing to admit that any problem existed. In fact, when reports of this situation first started to circulate, Abuja-based Nigeria Communication Satellite Ltd denied that their engineers and technicians were encountering any significant and unforeseen difficulties. By late the next day, however, they were telling a far different story.
The BBC, for example, was already reporting that they had been in touch with a consulting engineer who cast the entire NIGCOMSAT-1 project in a very negative light
"This has been a real debacle from day one [in 2004]," he said, and went to claim that the design of the satellite was not matched properly to signal reception requirements on the ground. He said the satellite's frequency allocation meant that it was guaranteed from the start to interfere with ongoing satellite transmissions involving other satellites serving the same region, and with receivers already installed for existing customers in Nigeria months, if not years, earlier.
China's role here cannot be dismissed. It must be emphasized that while Nigerian engineers in Abuja detected the anomaly early on, thousands of miles away at the Kashgar ground control facility in Xinjiang operated by CGWIC, Chinese technicians were certainly well aware of the satellite's deteriorating condition as they engaged in routine telemetry, tracking and control procedures.
Still, some might say that while the satellite's impaired status was not divulged immediately, this represents a vast improvement over the way the Sinosat-2 loss was handled by the Chinese in late 2006. At that time, the Chinese authorities disclosed nothing, and all information flow about Sinosat-2 ceased for well over two weeks.
While these two satellites suffered different fates, together they point to an inability or a protracted reluctance at best on the part of the Chinese space sector at an institutional level to share bad news along with the good when it comes to space-related events.
There are other differences. Sinosat-2 was launched to provide domestic services only. It represented the first of a new generation of specially designed Chinese satellites that could withstand jamming or other deliberate acts of signal interference as China feared a repeat of a series of successful jamming incidents involving Sinosat-1 carried out in 2002.
This was allegedly done by the Falungong, a religious group branded as an evil cult by Beijing, but it denied any involvement. NIGCOMSAT-1, on the other hand, was seen as a regional resource aimed at providing services to Nigeria and surrounding countries. It was a African satellite success story following on the heels of two major African region satellite failures in 2007, which began with the failed launch in the Pacific of NSS-8, and later, a severe performance downgrade of Rascomstar-QAF1.
Leaving aside the fact that the Export and Import Bank of China extended credits to Nigeria in excess of $200 million in order to ensure this project would go ahead as planned, and the fact that both China and Nigeria have joined together with Turkey, Algeria, and the UK to foster better satellite-based disaster response operations under the banner of the Disaster Monitoring Constellation (DMC), it is clear that CAST and CGWIC will want to see that no stone goes unturned as it conducts its forensic yet remote examination of what went wrong.
Perhaps everyone can draw some comfort from the fact that in late October, the first communications satellite ever launched by Kazakhstan, a Russian-built satellite known as Kazsat-1, has recently been brought back to life after going completely offline back in early June, thanks to countless hours of hard work by Russian satellite engineers.
Yes, a full recovery is possible. However, restoring services on a satellite lost or crippled in space is not the same as restoring confidence and regaining lost customers. Once a satellite malfunctions, business models disintegrate and former customers lose much of their enthusiasm for good reason. It is hard to run a satellite-based business when the satellite you depend upon suddenly goes dark. Just because a satellite comes back to life and lights up again does not mean that old customers will come running back. Of course, in some countries, old customers can be compelled to do so.
The magnitude of what has happened here must be emphasized. This is not simply a situation where two satellites have been lost, but where almost 50% of the satellites in the DFH-4 series have suffered serious and debilitating malfunctions. Among other things, this means that any future plans for the entire lineup of already scheduled DFH-4 satellites - including at least three Sinosat satellites starting with Sinosat-4 which had been assigned relatively fixed launch dates - are now open to question.
The satellite industry as a whole accepts the fact that satellite losses will happen and insures them accordingly - in most instances. For this reason, NIGCOMSAT-1's shortened lifespan should not be deemed a calamity, or something so disruptive that it will cause China's current satellite communications agenda to be discarded altogether.
But one cannot rule out entirely another troubling dimension of this pair of satellite failures. It raises the question that the Long March 3B rockets used to launch both satellites may provide a shaky ride that is more than the satellites can handle and contributed greatly to the unsuccessful outcome in both cases. There is no firm evidence of this connection, but again, it must be included in the overall assessment.
China proclaimed back in July that everything was is in working order and that it was increasing its aerospace production and research capacity by 100%. All systems were go for China to capture a 10% share of the global commercial satellite market, and a 15% share of the satellite launch market by 2015, an official press release stated. This is still feasible, but there is no question that the balloon has popped. What is not affected at all in the meantime is the completion of the construction of China's first coastal launch facility on Hainan Island.
It is possible that NIGCOMSAT-1 will be salvaged, and that Venesat-1 will proceed throughout its entire projected lifespan of 15 years or more without a single glitch. Certainly, there is reason to believe that NIGCOMSAT-1 is the victim of a unique and isolated breakdown. Perhaps not.
Other satellite manufacturers have been down the same path. Boeing in the US and its 702-series satellites, which were the subject of extensive litigation, come to mind in particular due to a pattern of electrical power and solar panel-related problems which impacted different satellites of the same family.
US-based Loral suffered a setback recently involving a damaged reflector prior to its installation aboard a Terrestar satellite, and the first of the US military's Wideband Global Satcom satellites was forced to sit on the ground for an additional 18 months too after defective fasteners were luckily spotted and replaced as well. Yet there is a distinct difference between a properly identified, corrected and reported problem suffered during a satellite's manufacturing phase, and an attempted cover-up of a problem involving a satellite in orbit.
China must now put all future DFH-4 deployments on hold as it reviews, revises and approves the DFH-4's core design, manufacturing and fabrication processes, along with all requisite quality control and component certification procedures. This is not just a technology fix, but a work force issue as well that will not be accomplished easily nor quickly.
China's long-term plan to provide space assets to select clients in exchange for greater access to natural resources, and its grand strategy involving two of the world's largest oil suppliers has certainly not benefited or been well served by NIGCOMSAT-1's dismal performance.
No matter if NIGCOMSAT-1 fully comes back to life or not, the Chinese satellite communications program is in for big changes, and while all of this is underway, Caracas can only wonder what might happen next.
Peter J Brown is a satellite journalist based in Maine, USA.