China Praised by Insurers for Hardware Troubleshooting

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PARIS — The successful launch Jan. 17 of a Chinese navigation satellite aboard a Chinese Long March 3C rocket has validated the corrective actions taken following an upper-stage failure aboard a similar vehicle in August, the China Great Wall Industry Corp. said Jan. 19.

The launch, the first of the Long March 3A family since the failure, also reinforced the assessment of a European space-insurance broker involved in Chinese satellite insurance coverage that Chinese authorities have demonstrated their ability to identify and remove design weaknesses in their rockets and commercial satellites.

Roger Bathurst, president of brokerage Willis Inspace, said a redesign of China’s principal telecommunications satellite platform, the DFH-4, appears to have eliminated the solar-array issues that caused the first two models to suffer major failures soon after launch.

Bathurst said the third DFH-4 spacecraft, the Venesat-1 satellite owned by the Venezuelan government, continues to operate without problems nearly 15 months after its Oct. 30 launch. The Venesat-1 performance will make it easier for upcoming DFH-4 satellites — the Sinosat 5, Sinosat 6, Nigcomsat-2 and Paksat-1 satellites, among others — to secure in-orbit insurance at competitive rates, Bathurst said.

The vehicle that carried China’s Beidou/Compass navigation satellite into geostationary transfer orbit Jan. 17 featured upper-stage engines that were modified to prevent ice or other foreign matter from disrupting their performance.

A Chinese board of inquiry had concluded that the vehicle that left Indonesia’s Palapa-D telecommunications satellite in a useless orbit in August had underperformed because of ice buildup or foreign matter in one of its two upper-stage engines. The satellite had to use its own fuel to climb to its intended orbit, and as a result it will operate for about 10.5 years rather than 15-16 years.

The board recommended that a filter be added to the engine’s gas-feed system, and that its liquid-hydrogen cavity be purged to prevent ice buildup.

Fu Zhiheng, general manager of the launch services division of China Great Wall Industry Corp. of Beijing, which markets the Long March vehicle, said Jan. 19 that the Long March 3C placed the Beidou/Compass satellite into the intended orbit.

In a Jan. 19 statement in response to Space News inquiries, China Great Wall Industry Corp. said the vehicle used in the Jan. 17 launch was identical to the Long March 3B rocket that underperformed in August except for the number of strap-on boosters.

China since the early 1990s has been positioning the Long March rocket to compete in the global commercial satellite-launch market. The August 2009 anomaly was the first in the entire Long March family in 13 years. Bathurst said Chinese investigators communicated the nature of the problem to insurers clearly and quickly, and that “this really turned out to be a non-event” for the global space-insurance market.

China’s commercial satellite product line is a more recent addition to the marketplace. The first export, to the Nigerian government, was the Nigcomsat-1 satellite launched in May 2007. Nigcomsat-1 was the second model of the new DFH-4 platform; it followed by seven months the launch of the Sinosat-2 satellite for what is now China Direct Broadcast Satellite Co. Ltd.

Sinosat-2 and Nigcomsat-1 both failed in orbit due to problems related to the DFH-4 platform’s solar array deployment system.

The DFH-4 is especially important for China’s Long March rocket builders because of a decade-long U.S. government policy barring the launch of U.S. satellite components on Chinese rockets. The ban was imposed out of concerns that China’s missile-development work would benefit from any advances in its satellite-launch capability. Most commercial telecommunications satellites, including those made in Europe, contain U.S. parts.

With the DFH-4, China is able to pair satellite and rocket, and offer in-orbit-delivery packages to prospective customers. Backed by government financial aid for Chinese exports, the DFH-4/Long March offer has won or is near winning orders from the governments of Pakistan, Bolivia and Laos in addition to a satellite-replacement order from Nigeria.

The Sinosat-5 and Sinosat-6 satellites are also under construction.

Bathurst said insurance underwriters are becoming comfortable with the DFH-4 design, as evidenced by the insurance package assembled in December to renew the Venesat-1 satellite’s in-orbit insurance.

 The China Academy of Space Technology’s “DFH-4 bus came of age in 2009 in insurers’ eyes,” Bathurst said. “There were clearly concerns about how Venesat-1 would perform. The satellite’s excellent health following design changes suggests that the lessons were well-learned. Obviously one swallow does not make a spring, but there are no problems that we are aware of.”

As a new platform, the DFH-4 cannot yet secure premiums as low as those given to well-established satellite designs. Bathurst said a couple of additional trouble-free satellites should bring DFH-4 premiums down further — especially given the currently plentiful insurance capacity and continued downward pressure on satellite and launch premiums overall.