Nigeria's Chinese-built satellite goes dark
By Peter J Brown
In May 2007, the Nigerian government rejoiced as the Chinese-built Nigeria
Communications Satellite - 1 (NIGCOMSAT-1), was sent into orbit by a Chinese
rocket at the Xichang launch facility. Nigeria was upbeat and looking forward
to 15 years of advanced telecommunications service, thanks to a satellite which
China, along with sending into space, had funded to the tune of well over $200
But in early November, after NIGCOMSAT-1 had been in service for only 18
months, all the dreams were dashed. NIGCOMSAT-1 went out of service completely
with its onboard electrical power supply damaged significantly due to a
malfunctioning solar array. Rumors flew that it was almost completely out of
perhaps a threat to nearby satellites. These were addressed by Nigerian and
later Chinese officials, but only after a day had passed, and after that only a
series of denials were issued.
Just a week earlier, the Chinese had launched a new communications satellite
for Venezuela known as Venesat-1 which used the same core technology or "bus"
as NIGCOMSAT-1. If the sequence of events was reversed, and Venezuela's first
communications satellite was still on the ground when the NIGCOMSAT-1 breakdown
took place, there is a strong possibility that Chinese satellite engineers
would have postponed the launch of Venesat-1 to make sure that the same problem
would not surface again.
Now, with the window of opportunity for a thorough pre-launch assessment of
Venesat-1 lost, its operators in Caracas are almost completely powerless to
control its fate, and no doubt evaluating the need for a new game-plan.
There is also little to cheer about for the teams at the China Academy of Space
Technology (CAST) and The China Great Wall Industry Corp, (CGWIC), which worked
so hard on developing and building this next generation of very large Chinese
communications satellites - known as the DongFangHong-4 (DFH-4) series. To be
clear, while DFH Satellite Co Ltd is listed as a CAST unit, which in turn has
its own parent company, the state-owned China Aerospace Science and Technology
Corporation, CGWIC serves as China's lone manufacturer of communication
satellites for export.
Big problems started in 2006
In late October 2006, the Chinese launched Sinosat-2 with great fanfare. After
all, this was the first DFH-4 launch and it was the largest communications
satellite that China had ever put in space. Sinosat-2 was planned to greatly
expand Chinese domestic TV coverage in advance of the 2008 Olympics, among
other things. However, immediately after launch, the satellite's solar panel
and antennae deployment was a complete failure, leading to the total loss of
the satellite, which had been launched a year behind schedule for various
What we saw this month unfolding in Nigeria was an unfortunate reminder of the
Sinosat-2 loss, not necessarily just because of what happened, but how it was
handled. For a day or so, the status of NIGSATCOM-1 was a complete mystery with
no officials from Nigeria or CGWIC willing to admit that any problem existed.
In fact, when reports of this situation first started to circulate, Abuja-based
Nigeria Communication Satellite Ltd denied that their engineers and technicians
were encountering any significant and unforeseen difficulties. By late the next
day, however, they were telling a far different story.
The BBC, for example, was already reporting that they had been in touch with a
consulting engineer who cast the entire NIGCOMSAT-1 project in a very negative
"This has been a real debacle from day one [in 2004]," he said, and went to
claim that the design of the satellite was not matched properly to signal
reception requirements on the ground. He said the satellite's frequency
allocation meant that it was guaranteed from the start to interfere with
ongoing satellite transmissions involving other satellites serving the same
region, and with receivers already installed for existing customers in Nigeria
months, if not years, earlier.
China's role here cannot be dismissed. It must be emphasized that while
Nigerian engineers in Abuja detected the anomaly early on, thousands of miles
away at the Kashgar ground control facility in Xinjiang operated by CGWIC,
Chinese technicians were certainly well aware of the satellite's deteriorating
condition as they engaged in routine telemetry, tracking and control
Still, some might say that while the satellite's impaired status was not
divulged immediately, this represents a vast improvement over the way the
Sinosat-2 loss was handled by the Chinese in late 2006. At that time, the
Chinese authorities disclosed nothing, and all information flow about Sinosat-2
ceased for well over two weeks.
While these two satellites suffered different fates, together they point to an
inability or a protracted reluctance at best on the part of the Chinese space
sector at an institutional level to share bad news along with the good when it
comes to space-related events.
There are other differences. Sinosat-2 was launched to provide domestic
services only. It represented the first of a new generation of specially
designed Chinese satellites that could withstand jamming or other deliberate
acts of signal interference as China feared a repeat of a series of successful
jamming incidents involving Sinosat-1 carried out in 2002.
This was allegedly done by the Falungong, a religious group branded as an evil
cult by Beijing, but it denied any involvement. NIGCOMSAT-1, on the other hand,
was seen as a regional resource aimed at providing services to Nigeria and
surrounding countries. It was a African satellite success story following on
the heels of two major African region satellite failures in 2007, which began
with the failed launch in the Pacific of NSS-8, and later, a severe performance
downgrade of Rascomstar-QAF1.
Leaving aside the fact that the Export and Import Bank of China extended
credits to Nigeria in excess of $200 million in order to ensure this project
would go ahead as planned, and the fact that both China and Nigeria have joined
together with Turkey, Algeria, and the UK to foster better satellite-based
disaster response operations under the banner of the Disaster Monitoring
Constellation (DMC), it is clear that CAST and CGWIC will want to see that no
stone goes unturned as it conducts its forensic yet remote examination of what
Perhaps everyone can draw some comfort from the fact that in late October, the
first communications satellite ever launched by Kazakhstan, a Russian-built
satellite known as Kazsat-1, has recently been brought back to life after going
completely offline back in early June, thanks to countless hours of hard work
by Russian satellite engineers.
Yes, a full recovery is possible. However, restoring services on a satellite
lost or crippled in space is not the same as restoring confidence and regaining
lost customers. Once a satellite malfunctions, business models disintegrate and
former customers lose much of their enthusiasm for good reason. It is hard to
run a satellite-based business when the satellite you depend upon suddenly goes
dark. Just because a satellite comes back to life and lights up again does not
mean that old customers will come running back. Of course, in some countries,
old customers can be compelled to do so.
The magnitude of what has happened here must be emphasized. This is not simply
a situation where two satellites have been lost, but where almost 50% of the
satellites in the DFH-4 series have suffered serious and debilitating
malfunctions. Among other things, this means that any future plans for the
entire lineup of already scheduled DFH-4 satellites - including at least three
Sinosat satellites starting with Sinosat-4 which had been assigned relatively
fixed launch dates - are now open to question.
The satellite industry as a whole accepts the fact that satellite losses will
happen and insures them accordingly - in most instances. For this reason,
NIGCOMSAT-1's shortened lifespan should not be deemed a calamity, or something
so disruptive that it will cause China's current satellite communications
agenda to be discarded altogether.
But one cannot rule out entirely another troubling dimension of this pair of
satellite failures. It raises the question that the Long March 3B rockets used
to launch both satellites may provide a shaky ride that is more than the
satellites can handle and contributed greatly to the unsuccessful outcome in
both cases. There is no firm evidence of this connection, but again, it must be
included in the overall assessment.
China proclaimed back in July that everything was is in working order and that
it was increasing its aerospace production and research capacity by 100%. All
systems were go for China to capture a 10% share of the global commercial
satellite market, and a 15% share of the satellite launch market by 2015, an
official press release stated. This is still feasible, but there is no question
that the balloon has popped. What is not affected at all in the meantime is the
completion of the construction of China's first coastal launch facility on
It is possible that NIGCOMSAT-1 will be salvaged, and that Venesat-1 will
proceed throughout its entire projected lifespan of 15 years or more without a
single glitch. Certainly, there is reason to believe that NIGCOMSAT-1 is the
victim of a unique and isolated breakdown. Perhaps not.
Other satellite manufacturers have been down the same path. Boeing in the US
and its 702-series satellites, which were the subject of extensive litigation,
come to mind in particular due to a pattern of electrical power and solar
panel-related problems which impacted different satellites of the same family.
US-based Loral suffered a setback recently involving a damaged reflector prior
to its installation aboard a Terrestar satellite, and the first of the US
military's Wideband Global Satcom satellites was forced to sit on the ground
for an additional 18 months too after defective fasteners were luckily spotted
and replaced as well. Yet there is a distinct difference between a properly
identified, corrected and reported problem suffered during a satellite's
manufacturing phase, and an attempted cover-up of a problem involving a
satellite in orbit.
China must now put all future DFH-4 deployments on hold as it reviews, revises
and approves the DFH-4's core design, manufacturing and fabrication processes,
along with all requisite quality control and component certification
procedures. This is not just a technology fix, but a work force issue as well
that will not be accomplished easily nor quickly.
China's long-term plan to provide space assets to select clients in exchange
for greater access to natural resources, and its grand strategy involving two
of the world's largest oil suppliers has certainly not benefited or been well
served by NIGCOMSAT-1's dismal performance.
No matter if NIGCOMSAT-1 fully comes back to life or not, the Chinese satellite
communications program is in for big changes, and while all of this is
underway, Caracas can only wonder what might happen next.
Peter J Brown is a satellite journalist based in Maine, USA.