$250 million ChinaSat-18 loss looming over insurers

by

WASHINGTON — The apparent failure of the ChinaSat-18 telecom satellite, which remains in a transfer orbit more than a week after launch, has underwriters bracing for a claim that is all but certain to wipe out space insurance profits for a second year in a row. 

China Satcom’s ChinaSat-18 satellite, which industry sources told SpaceNews was insured for $250 million, encountered a potentially mission-ending problem following its reportedly successful Aug. 19 launch aboard a Long March 3B rocket. 

Though underwritten by the People’s Insurance Company of China, ChinaSat-18 was reinsured on the international market, meaning foreign insurers are likely on the hook for much of any claim China Satcom files, industry sources said. 

Industry sources said paying for a ChinaSat-18 claim, combined with July’s Vega launch failure that destroyed the Falcon Eye-1 remote sensing satellite the UAE insured for around $415 million, will likely exceed total insurance premiums for 2019. The Falcon Eye-1 claim, sources said, stands to be the largest single loss space insurers have covered to date. 

“It’s definitely going to be a losing year” for space insurers, one industry source said. “Last year was a losing year and this year is going to be a losing year also.”

ChinaSat-18, also known as Zhongxing-18, is the first satellite based on the DFH-4E, an enhanced version of China Great Wall Industry Corp.’s established DFH-4 platform. The satellite was intended to complete China Satcom’s coverage of China in high-throughput Ka-band capacity, joining ChinaSat-16, which launched in May 2017. 

ChinaSat-18 was rumored to have suffered a solar array deployment failure as soon as doubts about the mission surfaced. 

“People are starting to draw their own conclusions, but there’s nothing official,” an industry source said. China Satcom has yet to file a claim, the source said. 

Of China’s 21 DFH-4-based satellites, two have suffered solar array issues — the Nigerian communication satellite NigComSat-1 in 2008 and SinoSat-2 in 2006 — leading to their failures.  

If ChinaSat-18 failed to deploy its solar arrays, its batteries would likely depleted by now, making it impossible to contact the satellite.

ChinaSat-18 remains stuck in a geostationary transfer orbit after an apparent post-launch anomaly. Credit: AGI

ChinaSat-18 remains in a geostationary transfer orbit instead of a circularized geosynchronous orbit, according to data from Space-Track. 

China Satcom operates 16 geostationary satellites. The company’s expansion into Ka-band had caught the attention of U.S. operator Viasat, which announced a partnership with China Satcom in April to provide inflight connectivity in China using its network and domestic market access. 

Israeli company Gilat Satellite Networks was selected in 2018 to provide the ground network for ChinaSat-18, as it did for ChinaSat-16. 

Andrew Jones contributed to this story from Helsinki.