China science

Surprise, relief as China’s key satellite makes it to orbit despite rocket launch failure

But the communication probe may have wiped two or three years off its lifespan by burning precious fuel to get back on track, scientist says

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 06 July, 2017, 10:01pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 06 July, 2017, 11:24pm

Chinese space authorities say an important communication satellite is now where it should be after it veered off course during a failed rocket launch last month.

The ChinaSat 9A probe was steered towards its target orbit on Wednesday, the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp­or­ation­ said. It had ended up in the wrong orbit after the ­unsuccessful launch of the Long March 3B, or CZ-2B, on June 19.

That was followed by another setback for the space programme on Sunday, when the Long March 5 Y2 rocket carrying the Shijian-18 – an experimental satellite and the heaviest built by China – plunged into the Pacific Ocean. The two failures have raised concerns about possible delays to Beijing’s ambitious space missions, which include lunar exploration.

The corporation, which carries out most of the country’s space activities, said the satellite’s small thrusters had been fired up 10 times via its flight control centre in Xian, Shaanxi province. On Thursday it reached and ­remained at a fixed point above the equator in Southeast Asia – its original destination.

Hu Weiduo,­ a spacecraft navigation and control scientist at Beihang University’s astronautics school, said the operation’s success was a relief. He said the manoeuvre was not uncommon – it’s been done by countries including Russia and the United States many times ­before – but it showed China was making progress on space technology and hardware.

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“The satellite can manoeuvre in space with small thrusters, but its mobility is limited. It requires precise planning and reliable instruments to get it on the right track. I’m glad they made it,” said Hu, who was not directly involved in the mission.

But he said luck also played a part, and it would not have been possible to steer the satellite back if it had travelled too far off course.

“The error might have been relatively small. If the [angle of the] initial orbit was more than 10 or 20 degrees off the equatorial plane, it would have ended up as space junk and there would be nothing we could do,” Hu said.

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But the rescue operation also used up precious fuel, which could mean a shorter lifespan for the satellite, Hu said. “The satellite might have had a lifespan of 15 years. It could have lost two or three years of that, depending on how much fuel was used,” he said.

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The satellite will be used to broadcast high-definition television signals across the country, including Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan, according to Xinhua. It also has a special antenna aimed at the South China Sea to “secure China’s sovereign right” in the disputed waters by allowing government staff, military personnel and civilians on remote islands to watch TV from home, it said.

The satellite will undergo a ­series of tests before it begins operating, the corporation said. It was launched from a centre in ­Sichuan but the rocket started rolling after it entered space due to a technical glitch.