Posted by: Frederik Balfour on March 23, 2009
The first time I blogged about China’s satellite rocket launch business, certain readers pointed out to me that I had strayed woefully out of my depth. And were it not for the persistent efforts of a PR flak at French rocket launch company Arianespace to keep me up to date, I would have missed an extremely significant development in the industry. On March 10, China scored a major commercial coup when it signed a deal to launch a “bird” on behalf of French satellite-fleet operator Eutelsat Communications in 2010.
While China has launched satellites on behalf of economically lesser nations such as Venezuela, which sent its satellite skyward aboard China’s Long March Rocket last October, it’s been more than a decade since it bagged a deal from a first world country.
According to Space News [sorry, this requires a subscription], Eutelsat chose the Chinese rocket because it was cheaper, could be launched sooner [western launch companies such as Arianaspace have a long waiting list] and because the service was comparable to Arianespace’s. Even more important, however, is the fact that because the Eutelsat satellite contains no U.S. components, thereby excluding it from restrictions under the U.S. law on International Traffic in Arms Regulations, which governs exports of U.S. defense-related technology and bars owners of satellites using U.S. parts from launching on Chinese rockets. The deal is especially worrisome for Washington because Eutelsat’s customers include the U.S. military in Afghanistan and Iraq.
ITAR was designed to keep sensitive U.S. technology from falling into the wrong hands—namely China. But ironically, the export ban served to spur European companies such as the French-Italian joint venture satellite maker Thales Alenia Space to design its own birds using no U.S. parts, thereby allowing customers like Eutelsat to launch using whomever they like. Some folks in Washington are already worried that ITAR ban is causing too much in lost sales and are advocating the law be reexamined under the Obama administration.
Meanwhile, China has been busily developing its own satellite technology, to meet its own growing communications [and intelligence] needs, and those of customers such as Nigeria, which became the country’s first foreign commercial satellite client when the Long March 3B rocket blasted off in May 2007.
[Addendum: I noticed a piece in the China Daily on March 25 which says China will replace, free of charge, the Nigerian satellite NIGCOMSAT 1R which was supposed to stay in geostationary orbit for 15 years, but conked out on Nov. 11 2008. ]
And that’s not all. According to a piece on the International Herald Tribune website, China may be getting the jump on Europe in developing its own version of the U.S. Global Positioning Satellite Service.
Europe’s own answer to GPS is called the Galileo navigation satellite project that hopes to place 30 orbiting satellites in position by 2013, five years behind schedule. China was an original Galileo partner back in 2003, but it got squeezed out by the Europeans over security concerns.
So now it appears China is going it alone, and if it gets its own system up before the Europeans, it will have dibs on the radio frequency the Europeans hope to use, according to the first mover clause under the International Telecommunications Union, an agency of the United Nations. Considering the nearly $2 trillion hoard of foreign exchange China is sitting on, and the anemic state of the European economy, I’d put my money on the Chinese in this race.