CHINA has launched a commercial satellite into orbit in its first strike at the lucrative business of sending payloads into space for profit. A Chinese Long March 3 rocket thundered off a launch pad in southern Sichuan Province Saturday carrying a United States-made satellite that will relay telecommunications across Asia.
The launch of the AsiaSat 1 satellite, the first launch of a major commercial satellite by a third world country, represents a significant diplomatic as well as technical achievement for China, analysts say.
The space shot climaxes China's effort to break into the multimillion-dollar market of commercial space delivery dominated by the US and the European Ariane program.
Although Chinese rockets lack the sophistication and heft of their competitors, China is likely to win several contracts because of its comparatively cheap pricing, diplomats and other analysts say.
China has pledged to follow fair pricing practices, but launched the payload for just $30 million, more than 30 percent cheaper than the average fee of the US and Ariane.
The recent space shot and two others planned before 1993 give Beijing a needed infusion of hard currency for its cash-strapped, lagging economy, the analysts say.
The successful launch ``is of great economic and political significance to China,'' the State Council, China's cabinet, said yesterday. The Council said, ``the success resulted from adherence to the policy of reforms and opening to the outside world.''
Four months ago AsiaSat 1 was barred from entering China under sanctions imposed by President Bush after last June's massacre of pro-democracy activists in Beijing. Despite an outcry from the US Congress, Bush exempted AsiaSat 1 and two similar satellites from the trade curbs in December, citing $300 million worth of related business for US firms.
The controversial exemption was one of many gestures aimed at encouraging Beijing to soften its crackdown on liberal dissent.
Beijing had to clear away other obstacles with Washington before the liftoff. After lengthy negotiations it assured Washington in 1988 that it would neither steal US satellite technology nor undercut US rocket companies by offering the launchings and launch insurance at prices below actual cost.
China agreed to provide sufficient liability insurance for launches and to limit its launches of foreign satellites to nine before 1996. With such assurances, Washington approved the export to China of AsiaSat 1 and two other US-made satellites for Aussat, Australia's national operator of communications. China plans to launch the Aussat satellites in 1991 and 1992.
AsiaSat 1 was manufactured by the Hughes Aircraft Company of Los Angeles and is owned by Asia Satellite Telecommunications of Hong Kong, a consortium of companies from Hong Kong, Britain, and China. The satellite will relay messages across Asia, covering a swath from Saudi Arabia to Indonesia to Japan.
China in recent years has made aerospace the centerpiece of its high-tech development, devoting at least half of all funding for science and technology to its space program, according to the official New China News Agency. It has announced tentative plans to build a space station and develop a space shuttle program this decade.
China launched its first satellite 20 years ago, a 380-pound device that circled the earth broadcasting the revolutionary anthem ``The East is Red.'' China has put a total of 27 satellites into orbit and its leaders often remark that the aerospace program is a paragon of self-reliance, built completely with Chinese know-how.