Chinese telecommunications satellite hit by anomalies after launch

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TAMPERE, Finland — A Chinese telecommunications satellite has suffered unspecified anomalies following an apparently successful launch into geosynchronous transfer orbit.

Zhongxing-18 (ChinaSat-18), a civilian telecommunications satellite to provide broadcasting and communications services to China, lifted off atop of an enhanced Long March 3B launch vehicle from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center, southwest China, at 8:03 a.m. Eastern Monday, with amateur footage from the vicinity confirming liftoff. The first official confirmation of many Chinese launches come around one hour after launch from the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC), the main space contractor for the space program, or the media arm of the People’s Liberation Army.

Speculation grew among Chinese space watchers and enthusiasts online as the hours passed with no official statement on the mission. 

Early Tuesday, Chinese state news agency Xinhua reported that the satellite separated from the rocket stage as normal, but ChinaSat 18, “has experienced abnormalities, and space engineers are investigating the cause.”

No indication of the source or nature of the issue was offered. Data published by the U.S. Space Surveillance Network following the launch indicates two objects in geosynchronous transfer orbit, suggesting successful separation of the rocket stage and satellite as per the Xinhua statement.

New satellite platform

Zhongxing-18 is equipped with 30 Ku-band transponders, 9 Ka-band transponders and 2 Ka BSS-band transponders to provide a range of broadcasting, communications services and internet applications across a lifetime of 15 years or more.

The satellite is based on a DFH-4E satellite platform and is the first of its type launched. It is a variant of the established large DFH-4 platform. Two of 21 DFH-4-based satellites launched have suffered solar array issues, leading to the failure in orbit of Nigerian communication satellite NigComSat-1 in 2008 and the loss Xinnuo 2 (SinoSat-2) in 2006 when the solar arrays failed to deploy.

Zhongxing-18 is to be operated by China Satcom, a CASC subsidiary specialized in satellite communications & broadcasting services. China Satcom planned an IPO for this year and entered the Shanghai Stock Exchange on June 28.

Debris downrange

Spent stages from the Long March 3B, a three-stage 55-meter-tall (180-foot) hypergolic launcher with four side boosters, fell to Earth downrange of Xichang, with two cows apparently losing their lives as a result.

China’s previous launch from Xichang saw a first test of grid fins on the two-stage Long March 2C launch vehicle, with apparent resemblance to those used to guide SpaceX Falcon boosters back to landing areas. The test was stated to both decrease downrange dangers of launches and pave the way for future reusable launchers.

Three of China’s four national launch centers were established during the Cold War, with tensions with the United States and Soviet Union prompting the decision for the sites to be located far inland for security reasons. Despite careful rocket flight path design and safety measures on the ground, spent boosters have frequently fallen among towns and villages downrange from Xichang, sometimes damaging property.