China Developing Lightweight Electric Satellite, Broadening Export Efforts

by

PARIS — China has begun development of a lighter-weight telecommunications satellite platform using electric propulsion and lithium-ion batteries to offer launches on smaller Chinese rockets in addition to continuing work on a much heavier vehicle, China’s space hardware exporter said.

Chinese officials are also broadening their export effort to include Earth observation satellites, having concluded that this market is growing more attractive with the demand by developing nations for their own space-based observation systems, the official said.

Fu Zhiheng, vice president of China Great Wall Industry Corp. of Beijing, said China is on track to conduct the maiden flight of its new Long March 5 rocket in 2014 from the new Hainan Island spaceport off China’s south coast.

Long March 5 is the most powerful version of China’s next-generation rocket series, which includes the Long March 6 and Long March 7 variants. Long March 5 will carry up to 14,000 kilograms of payload to geostationary transfer orbit, the destination of most telecommunications satellites.

Long March 6 and Long March 7 are aimed at Earth observation satellites and other payloads heading to low Earth orbit. China has already booked one Earth observation satellite order, from the government of Venezuela, for the launch of the VRSS-1 satellite.

China signed a contract with Spain’s Galactic Suite, which is attempting to win the $30 million Google Lunar X Prize by placing a small rover on the surface of the Moon in 2014. A Chinese Long March 2C, with a CTS-2 upper stage, will launch the rover from China’s Xichang Satellite Launch Center, in southwest China’s Sichuan province.

The Barcelona-based company, whose Lunar X Prize effort is called the Barcelona Moon Team, contracted with China Great Wall Industry Corp. in August and said at the time that U.S. regulations offer an opportunity for Spanish industry.

The U.S. International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) technology export regime prohibits most satellite or spacecraft parts from being exported to China, even if they are embedded in payloads intended only for launch from Chinese territory.

That being the case, the Barcelona Moon Team said after the contract, “the Spanish mission has been designed not to use any American components that may interfere with … ITAR. This regulation prevents many American companies [from] bring[ing] their technology products to international markets, creating a niche market for other companies developing alternative technologies to avoid the ban on the construction of satellites.”

In presenting China’s space export effort Sept. 11 at World Satellite Business Week, organized by Euroconsult, Fu said ITAR remains an “obvious” obstacle to Chinese export efforts. “But we are trying to find a niche market,” he said.

China has been able to sell turnkey systems including the construction, launch, insurance and financing for telecommunications satellite programs in Nigeria, Venezuela, Laos and other nations, and is now looking to sell launches and satellites dedicated to Earth observation from low Earth orbit.

“We have heard customers complain there are not enough opportunities for [launchers into low Earth orbit], so this is an area for more attention,” Fu said.

For telecommunications satellites, China’s principal product is the DFH-4 platform, which has encountered difficulties with its solar-array deployment on at least two of its early models.

Fu said eight DFH-4 platforms have been launched, with nine others under construction for Chinese domestic and export customers, including TKSat-1 for Bolivia, Sinosat-4 and Chinasat 11.

The DFH-4 platform offers a 15-year service life, similar to what U.S., European and Japanese manufacturers provide, and between six and eight kilowatts of power to the payload — a middleweight power in Western terms.

The DFH-4 is typically launched on China’s Long March 3B rocket, which can carry a satellite weighing up to 5,500 kilograms to geostationary transfer orbit.

Fu said the Chinese Academy of Space Technology, which builds the satellites, is developing two new DFH-4 variants, one of lighter design for launch on smaller, presumably less-expensive, rockets, and the other offering more power.

The DFH-4S, with lithium-ion batteries and offering electric propulsion as an option — replacing chemical propulsion with electric propulsion can offer substantial weight savings, permitting the use of smaller rockets — is designed to provide four kilowatts of power to the payload.

With a launch mass of 3,800 kilograms, the DFH-4S can fit on a Long March 3C rocket, which is fitted with two strap-on boosters instead of the four used for the Long March 3B.

The DFH-4E, Fu said, offers 11 kilowatts of power to its payload for a launch weight that does not exceed 5,500 kilograms — the same as the current DFH-4 platform.

Fu did not refer to it, but one official familiar with China’s telecommunications satellite program said Chinese satellite developers are also focusing on development of travelling wave tube amplifiers to reduce their dependence on European suppliers.