Experts say the sky's the limit for exports of space technology

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 24 October, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 24 October, 2007, 12:00am

With its proven ability, lower costs and more relaxed regulations on space technology exports, China will be better placed to compete with the US in the lucrative satellite market with a successful lunar satellite launch according to industry analysts.

'The advance of a country's space science and technology has a positive effect on their business sector,' said Geng Kun, a spokeswoman for China Great Wall Industry Corp, the only commercial entity authorised by the central government to provide international commercial launch services.

'The Chang'e lunar orbiter project, the third milestone of China's space programme, is a good example of the latest development. We don't often promote ourselves; China's space capability speaks for itself.'

The lunar satellite will be launched tonight, weather willing.

China's space insurance premiums were among the world's lowest because Chinese made rockets were very reliable, Ms Geng said. China's CZ rockets have enjoyed a flawless launch record since 1997.

'We are optimistic about the future, but also highly cautious, because we are aware of an obstacle ahead,' Ms Geng said.

That obstacle is a ban imposed in 1999 by the US State Department on China's launching a US satellite or any satellite from a country that uses US-made components, even non-sensitive parts such as tape recorders, as a result of the International Traffic in Arms Regulations.

The regulations are the result of the 1999 Cox Commission, which investigated accusations that China was illicitly acquiring sensitive technology through its commercial ties with US satellite firms.

The commission's report suggested that each time a US satellite firm exported or launched a satellite in China, it helped Beijing, directly or indirectly, to improve its missile launch capabilities. China's commercial satellite launch services had blossomed until then, largely because of that co-operation with US satellite companies.

Between 1990 and 1998, China sent 29 overseas satellites into space for more than 10 countries and regions, accounting for about 8 per cent of the market and making China the third largest rocket supplier in the world. But since then the US restriction has effectively shut down China's international trade in the space sector.

Guo Xiaobing, a space policy researcher at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations, said Chinese launch companies' supplies were cut off after the US government banned satellite exports and China Great Wall suddenly had no satellites to launch.

'From then until 2005, China Great Wall did not launch a single foreign satellite. Europe and Japan have largely stepped in to capture the market share made available after China's withdrawal,' Dr Guo said.

He said China had returned to the international commercial launch business with the successful launch of the Apstar-6 satellite for APT Satellite Holdings on April 12, 2005.

'In the development of its space industry, China has also overcome the handicap of being 'strong in one leg and weak in the other'; that is, having strong launch capabilities but weak satellite manufacturing capacity,' Dr Guo said.

'Now its satellites have also begun to enter the world market. In 2004, China made a breakthrough with the export of a satellite to Nigeria and one to Venezuela in 2005. Both of these satellites were launched by Chinese rockets this year.

'A successful launch of Chang'e will be very good news because it will not only show the capacity of our rockets, but also our ability to produce highly sophisticated satellites.

'The international community has long doubted China's ability to make large satellites with advanced detecting and remote sensing equipment. But the success of Fengyun-2 [a weather satellite, in 2004], and now Chang'e, is going to change that impression.'

Dr Guo also said that the so-called full-service chain - including manufacturing, launching and operation - 'provides much a higher profit than simply renting out the rockets. That will also help China to sidestep the US blockade and develop our own markets, especially in friendly developing nations'.

Star performer

Research firm Euroconsult estimates the space industry market at US$145 billion over the next 10 years compared with US$116 billion from 1997 to last year

The satellite launch market was

US$36 billion from 1997 to last year. Over the next 10 years it is expected to be worth in US dollars $40.5b