High-Stakes Satellite Explodes, Setting Back China's Space Quest

Embarrassing blast delays plans to expand TV broadcasts in Asia

YESTERDAY'S explosion of a Chinese rocket carrying a US-made satellite will slow China's space ambitions and the march of space-age broadcasting in Asia for months, China analysts and industry observers say.

The blast at dawn of the Chinese Long March 2E rocket destroyed its biggest and most valuable payload to date, the Apstar-2 satellite, which major media clients had hoped would spread their programming in a giant telecommunications footprint across Asia, Australia, Eastern Europe, and North Africa.

Instead, executives from Turner Broadcasting, The Discovery Channel, Home Box Office, and other media companies who were on hand for the failed launch at the Xichang Space Center in southwestern Sichuan Province were disappointed and were left scrambling for limited space on other satellites.

The satellite was built by US-based Hughes Corp., owned by the Chinese government-controlled APT Satellite Co. of Hong Kong, and insured for $160 million by Shanghai-based Pacific Insurance Co. It was a sophisticated orbiter with the power to deliver 100 television channels to two-thirds of the world's people.

Its advanced digital and encryption technology offered broadcasters flexibility in delivering programming tailored to language, cultures, and political situations in polyglot Asia.

The official New China News Agency said the disaster, seen live on Chinese national television before the signal was abruptly cut off, is under investigation.

But industry observers said it could be several months before the cause of the accident is known.

``China's ability to handle launches in the near future is in question now,'' says an Asian analyst who follows Chinese space developments. ``With the Asian television market so competitive, these companies will have to seek out other options.''

But Foreign Ministry spokesman Shen Guofang said China would not be daunted by the setbacks. ``I don't believe this will adversely affect the confidence in China's ability,'' he says. ``This explosion is a big incident and we regret it.''

The Apstar-2 loss is a major humiliation and one of the most serious setbacks to date for China's ambitious but disaster-prone aerospace program. China has bid to be a major player in the commercial-launch business by developing its own domestic-satellite industry and charging bargain-basement fees that undercut those of the United States, France, and other launch countries.

Earlier this month, Chinese press reports said the Dongfanghong No. 3 satellite, launched last November, ran out of fuel and failed to go into its designed orbit. Western observers say the satellite likely was lost, although Chinese officials have not confirmed this.

Last December, China lost its domestically designed and built East-Is-Red 3 satellite just after its launch. In April, 1994, a rocket carrying a weather satellite exploded at the Xichang Space Center, killing three people and delaying the facility's launch schedule by three months.

An Optus B2 satellite produced by Hughes was lost after a perfect launch in December 1992, prompting the US company and Chinese officials to trade recriminations while the cause of the accident was not revealed.

Despite the rush of Western broadcasters for Asian satellite time, China has a controversial track record as a provider of launch and satellite services. Last September, China went ahead and launched its Apstar-1 orbiter amid a bitter dispute with Japan over interference with an existing Japanese satellite. China finally agreed to shift its satellite's orbit, but in the process angered clients who feared signals over the important Indian market would be weakened.

Yesterday's accident ``provides us with a reprieve,'' says a spokesman for Star TV, Asia's dominant network and the target of Chinese efforts to form its own satellite and broadcasting consortium. ``This will be a plus.''

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