Telecom Satellite Stranded by Errant Rocket to be Salvaged

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PARIS — Indonesia’s Palapa-D telecommunications satellite arrived in standard geostationary transfer-orbit position Sept. 3, three days after being left in a useless orbit by an underperforming Chinese Long March 3B rocket.

The satellite is expected to be guided into its final geostationary-orbit position by mid-September, according to the satellite’s builder, Thales Alenia Space of France and Italy. One industry official said Palapa-D, designed to operate for 15 years, will have enough fuel for eight to 10 years of service following the orbit-raising maneuvers.

The success of Thales Alenia Space in salvaging the spacecraft will give Palapa-D owner PT Indosat Tbk of Jakarta breathing room. Palapa-D will replace the Palapa-C2 satellite at 113 degrees east longitude. Launched in 1996, Palapa-C2 has two to three years of full-service life remaining — about the time it would take for Indosat to replace Palapa-D had it been declared a total loss.

The decision to attempt to salvage the satellite despite its placement in a too-low orbit was made with Palapa-D insurance underwriters, whose payout amount to Indosat likely will depend on how much commercial life the satellite can provide.

Thales Alenia Space declined to confirm that Palapa-D can be expected to operate for eight to 10 years once in final position, saying a precise estimate cannot be made until the spacecraft reaches its destination.

Palapa-D was launched Aug. 31 from China’s Xichang Satellite Launch Center in China’s Sichuan Province. The Long March 3B rocket was supposed to place Palapa-D into an elliptical transfer orbit with an apogee of about 50,000 kilometers and a perigee of around 200 kilometers.

Launch service provider China Great Wall Industry Corp. of Beijing has declined to comment on what went wrong, but according to information from the U.S. Air Force’s satellite-tracking network, the satellite’s apogee was only around 21,150 kilometers. Palapa-D, like most telecommunications satellites, is designed to operate in a circular orbit around 36,000 kilometers over the equator.

China’s semi-official Xinhua news agency said the anomaly occurred during the second burn of the vehicle’s third stage.

The Long March 3B is China’s principal telecommunications satellite launcher. The Palapa-D launch was the vehicle’s 12th and its first failure since its maiden flight in 1996, when the rocket veered off course and crashed into a nearby mountain, killing at least six villagers. An Intelsat satellite was destroyed in that accident.

The investigation into that accident, along with the probe of a 1995 Chinese rocket failure that also destroyed a U.S.-built satellite, ultimately led the U.S. government to place a de facto ban on exports of U.S. satellites or their components to China. U.S. officials were concerned that sensitive technology was transferred to China during the course of those probes and that China was able to use its commercial space launch experience to perfect its missile development.

The U.S. government later broadened its restrictions on exports of satellite components as part of the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR), which some U.S. component builders say has handicapped their export potential.

Palapa-D, a Spacebus 4000B3 model platform, is one of Thales Alenia Space’s so-called “ITAR-free” spacecraft, meaning it contains no U.S. components subject to ITAR restrictions.

The Franco-Italian builder beat out competitor Space Systems/Loral of Palo Alto, Calif., for the Palapa-D contract after proposing two options to Indosat: a slightly more expensive ITAR-free satellite that could be launched aboard a Chinese rocket, which was less expensive than a U.S., European or Russian vehicle; and a more-standard Spacebus 4000 design that contains U.S. parts and could not be launched from China. Indosat selected the ITAR-free version.

The 4,100-kilogram Palapa-D carries 24 C-band, 11 extended C-band and 5 Ku-band transponders. The construction and launch contract, signed in June 2007, calls for the satellite builder to assume responsibility for the satellite until its successful placement in orbit.

In submissions to the Indonesia Stock Exchange, Indosat said it financed Palapa-D principally from three bank facilities negotiated in 2007.

The first, with HSBC France and valued at $157.2 million, is a 12-year loan guaranteed by France’s Coface export-credit agency and designed to pay for 85 percent of the satellite’s France-based content, plus the loan’s premium of 5.69 percent per year.

The second loan, also through HSBC France, is valued at $44.2 million and is intended to pay for 85 percent of the launch service contract.

The third loan is with HSBC Jakarta, PT Bank Lippo of Indonesia and Bank of China’s Jakarta branch and is valued at $27 million.