PARIS — A Chinese Long March 3B rocket successfully placed’s W3C commercial telecommunications satellite into geostationary transfer orbit Oct. 7, an event marking China’s first launch for a Western satellite owner in the more than 12 years since the U.S. government instituted a de facto ban on satellite technology exports to China.
The Long March 3B, which is fitted with four liquid-fueled strap-on boosters and is the most powerful variant of the Long March 3A family, set a record for its performance.
At 5,400 kilograms, the W3C is the heaviest commercial satellite ever launched by the rocket, according to China Great Wall Industry Corp. of Beijing, which markets Long March vehicles worldwide. The vehicle is designed to carry telecommunications satellites weighing up to 5,500 kilograms.
Operating from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in southwest China’s Sichuan Province, the Long March 3B placed the W3C into a transfer orbit from which it is expected to use its own power to circularize its position and then drift to its planned operating slot at 16 degrees east.
Paris-based Eutelsat said the spacecraft was healthy in orbit after launch. W3C, aSpacebus 4000 C3 model, carries 53 Ku-band and three Ka-band transponders and will deliver telecommunications services to Europe, the Indian Ocean region and parts of Africa. It is designed to deliver 12 kilowatts of power to its payload at the end of 15 years of service life in orbit.
Fearing China was using commercial satellite launches to perfect its missile technology, the U.S. Congress in 1998 passed a law that reclassified all commercial satellites as weapons systems for export purposes. This made satellites subject to the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR), which is administered by the U.S. State Department, and effectively barred the shipment of any U.S. satellite hardware or technology to China.
Seeking access to the Chinese market, Franco-Italian satellite builder Thales Alenia Space developed an “ITAR-free” product line that was devoid of ITAR-controlled components. The company has since sold several satellites and major satellite payload systems to satellite operators in China and to non-Chinese satellite fleet owners seeking a Chinese launch.
While all of the large Western satellite operators have said they would like to use the Long March vehicle, Eutelsat is the first to have contracted for a launch. Eutelsat is the world’s third-largest satellite operator in terms of revenue, afterof Luxembourg and Washington, and of Luxembourg.
Despite regularly lamenting what they say is an insufficient supply of commercial rockets, Intelsat and SES have so far declined to order an ITAR-free satellite, although both they and Telesat of Canada, the world’s fourth-largest commercial fleet operator, have said they would like to do so.
Satellite fleet operators Intelsat, SES and Telesat have voiced support for a modification in the U.S. government’s technology-export policy that would permit U.S.-built commercial satellites to be launched aboard China’s Long March rocket.
Industry officials have said one reason these companies have refrained from using the Chinese vehicle, whose reliability has been demonstrated to the satisfaction of insurance underwriters, is that they have U.S. government-licensed orbital slots and do not want to risk regulatory backlash that may compromise these assets.
Eutelsat signed a launch contract with China Great Wall Industry Corp. in early 2008. At the time, the satellite in question was to be the W3B. But in early 2010, the W3B launch contract was transferred to Europe’slaunch consortium.
The W3B satellite was successfully launched in October 2010 aboard a European Ariane 5 rocket, but was declared a total loss soon after reaching orbit due to a catastrophic propellant leak.
The failure, which resulted in an insurance payment of some $320 million, was later tied to the rupture of a single tube, which was misaligned in its connection to one of the satellite’s thruster motors.
A board of inquiry said one partial cause of the tube misalignment was the fact that an ITAR-free thruster was replaced, late in the manufacturing and test process, by a standard thruster. Insurance underwriters paid Eutelsat about $320 million for the loss.