With High Launch Rate in Tow, China Great Wall Courts Western Business

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PARIS — China’s launch-service provider expects to conduct more than 10 missions per year over the next two years on the strength of continued strong demand from Chinese satellite owners and what appears to be a growing, if still modest, business of launching Chinese-built satellites aboard Chinese rockets for foreign governments, Chinese launch officials said.

Twenty years after its first commercial launch — a U.S.-built telecommunications satellite — and more than a decade after its participation in the international commercial launch market was sharply curtailed by U.S. technology-export restrictions, China Great Wall Industry Corp. (CGWIC) is making a fresh attempt to attract Western business.

Beijing-based CGWIC on April 8 held a conference for current and prospective users and insurers of China’s Long March rocket series at the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in China’s Sichuan Province, the launch base for the heavy-lift Long March 3A, Long March 3B and Long March 3C versions that deliver commercial telecommunications spacecraft to geostationary transfer orbit.

Space insurance officials say the record of the heavy-lift end of the Long March series — 29 successes in 31 launches since 1996, including a maiden-flight failure and one partial failure in 2009 — has helped reduce insurance premiums for Long March launches to rates not far from what is offered by the two dominant commercial launch vehicles — Europe’s Ariane 5 rocket and Russia’s Proton.

The company says satellites are exempted from Chinese customs inspection, and that CGWIC literally gives foreign satellite customers the keys to the Xichang satellite processing facility where the non-Chinese-built satellites are prepared for launch.

“When the customer satellite team arrives at the launch site, the satellite processing facility is handed over for their control,” CGWIC Vice President and General Manager Fu Zhiheng said in an April 15 e-mail following the users conference. “Without their permission, no one can enter the facility. Video monitoring is also available for the satellite team while the satellite is in the processing facility as well as on the pad.”

In the event of a launch failure in which the satellite debris falls on Chinese territory, a joint Chinese and customer team would be sent to collect it, in keeping with a U.S.-Chinese technology safeguards agreement signed in the mid-1990s.

From its first launch, in April 1990, of a U.S.-built commercial satellite — the AsiaSat 1 manufactured by Hughes, whose satellite plant has since been purchased by Boeing — to 1999, CGWIC launched 26 U.S-built satellites, including 12 Iridium satellites placed into low Earth orbit and manufactured by Motorola and Lockheed Martin.

In 1999, the U.S. government, concerned that China’s commercial launch business was benefiting China’s missile development, made it all but impossible for U.S.-made satellite components to be exported to China.

Reinforced by the U.S. International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) regime that restricts technology exports, the ban remains in effect. But it has had limited effect on China’s launcher development because it occurred just as China’s domestic satellite market was moving into takeoff position.

According to the CGWIC presentation made during the users conference, it took 28 years, to 1998, for China’s domestic market to launch its first 50 satellites aboard Long March vehicles. The next 50 Chinese satellites were launched in just nine years, to mid-2007.

Since July 2007, another 23 Chinese domestic launches have occurred.

CGWIC said the surge in domestic demand has enabled the company to order Long March vehicles in larger batches, streamlining the production cycle. The time needed from contract signing to launch today is about 24 months. A typical launch campaign, which took 50 days a decade ago, is now 25 days.

Domestic demand shows no sign of slowing. In addition to telecommunications operators, Chinese customers include the operator of China’s Compass/Beidou satellite navigation constellation, which is designed to include 30 satellites in medium Earth orbit and five in higher geostationary orbit. CGWIC said Compass/Beidou is a major component of its launch forecast for the next two years.

European and Asian satellite manufacturers for various reasons have not seen fit to attack the market opening and throttle up production using so-called “ITAR-free” parts built outside the United States. Thales Alenia Space of France and Italy has modified its Spacebus production line to accommodate customers seeking a Chinese launch option, but only four ITAR-free Spacebus satellites have been launched since 2005.

Two more — one each for Eutelsat of Paris and APT Satellite Holdings of Hong Kong — are under construction and scheduled for launch in 2011 and 2012.

In parallel with the development of the Long March rocket series, China Aerospace Science & Technology Corp. (CASC) has developed the DFH-4 telecommunications satellite for domestic and international customers, including Nigeria and Venezuela in 2007 and 2008, respectively.

Four DFH-4 platforms coupled with Long March launches are in CGWIC’s export backlog following agreements with Pakistan, Laos and Bolivia, plus a second Nigcomsat satellite for Nigeria following the in-orbit failure of the first model.

The Nigerian and Venezuelan satellites each weighed about 5,100 kilograms at launch. But CGWIC says that given their optimized orbits, the Long March 3BE has been qualified to lift a satellite weighing up to 5,500 kilograms into geostationary transfer orbit.