Four Western aerospace companies are in the final stages of competing for a lucrative order to supply China with satellites for direct broadcasting of television.
The Chinese government is due to decide by early next year which of the four - RCA and Ford of the United States, Matra of France, or MBB of West Germany - will obtain a contract worth about $100 million to supply two satellites.
Later in the 1980s, the Chinese are due to order two more satellites in a system London analysts estimate could eventually require some $1 billion worth of equipment. Much of this hardware, including control stations and receiving antennas, would be bought from the West.
China has for years debated the possibility of using direct- broadcast satellites to bring TV to its population of 1 billion. Such craft beam signals to small rooftop antennas. In theory, they can be set up far less expensively than conventional ground-based antenna networks. In a vast country like China, in which huge areas are mountainous, the difficulties of erecting a conventional TV network are immense.
But the talks with the four Western companies are the first real sign that the country is going ahead with the plan. The companies have confirmed that they expect specific tender proposals from the Chinese government later this month.
The groups have to formulate concrete bids by the end of the year, with a decision on the winner expected by early spring. The first two satellites would be orbited in 1987 or 1988. The third would enter space later in the decade, with the fourth satellite kept as a ground spare. At one point, China was considering whether to build its own satellites in its direct-broadcasting venture. But the country has now clearly decided that foreign technology will enable it to start the system more quickly.
China will use either Ariane or the space shuttle to launch the first two satellites. The country has already placed a reservation with Arianespace, the Paris company that sells the Western Europe-developed Ariane, but has not confirmed the order.
Industry sources say, however, the shuttle has the better chance of landing the contract. It appears China may favor the US vehicle because of warming ties between the two countries.
According to industry sources, the Chinese will launch the third satellite of the series with their own launcher, the Long March 3 rocket. That is the most powerful in a series of Chinese rockets that have so far launched 16 satellites (most of them for military purposes). The original Chinese rockets were designed to carry nuclear bombs.
The launch of the Long March 3 with such an important payload would be a public test of its prowess. It would be part of what some observers think is a campaign by the Chinese to commercialize their launch fleet so that, by the 1990 s, it could compete with Ariane and the space shuttle in taking the satellites of Western communications companies into orbit.