CHINA has begun the most ambitious year ever in its commercial space program with a disclosure that its latest rocket launch has misfired.
A Long March 3 rocket failed to put a Chinese satellite in its proper orbit when its third stage malfunctioned on Dec. 28, the New China News Agency recently reported. The telecommunications satellite is in a low orbit and cannot perform its mission, Western aeronautics experts say.
Reports about the marooned satellite will not disrupt plans by Australia and Sweden to hire Chinese rockets this year, according to officials from the three countries.
But the mishap mars China's launch record at a time when United States and European officials are attempting to inhibit China's competitiveness in the cutthroat business of satellite launching, experts say.
US and European officials in recent years have pressured China to raise the price of its launch services, claiming it sets prices far below cost.
China "could have argued [to potential customers], 'look at our record of both reliability and lower price,' but now that they have had a major accident they can't make that argument," says John Logsdon, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University.
In addition, a worsening trade wrangle between the US and China could hamper efforts by Beijing to increase its share of the commercial launch services market, experts say. Washington and Beijing have threatened each other with tariffs in a bitter dispute over copyrights and other guarantees for "intellectual property."
Under US law, China must gain approval from the US president before importing satellites made in the US or constructed largely of US parts. The US is the world's leading maker of satellites.
President Bush last month lifted a ban on the shipment of some satellite parts in order to coax China into restricting the export of medium-range missiles.
But the trade dispute and efforts by the US Congress to make China's bilateral trade privileges contingent on improvement of its human rights record are likely to complicate attempts by China to import and launch additional US satellites, experts say.
"It would be very problematic," Dr. Logsdon says.
China is far from exceeding a limit on foreign satellite launches set in negotiations with the US in 1988.
Under the agreement, China should not launch more than nine foreign satellites before 1995. It has put just one major foreign satellite in orbit, a communications device built by the US-based Hughes Aircraft Company.
China's low pricing makes it a strong bidder in the market for satellite delivery. It has exploited its low labor costs and simple rocket designs to win contracts to launch three satellites this year: a research satellite for the Swedish Space Corporation and two telecommunications satellites for Aussat, an Australian company.
Also, Intelsat, the organization running the global network of communications satellites, has asked China to bid for satellite deliveries.
In its first major commercial space deal, China launched a telecommunications satellite for a consortium of British, Hong Kong, and Chinese companies in April 1990. The US-made Asiasat 1 satellite rode a Long March 3 rocket similar to the one that malfunctioned.
China plans to launch the two Australian satellites on the Long March 2E. The rocket is China's newest and most powerful launch vehicle, capable of putting a 19,360-pound payload into low-earth orbit.
The heft of the Long March 2E exceeds that of the European Space Agency's Ariane 4, the world's most widely used commercial rocket. The Long March 2E was first launched in July 1990 and has not flown since then.
Beijing recently showed signs of bowing to the demand that it raise its prices to reflect their actual cost.
China's price in its bid to launch the Palapa B4 telecommunications satellite for Indonesia was about 7 percent less than the winning, $44 million bid by the McDonnell Douglas Aircraft Company. Previously China had underbid its rivals by about 30 percent.
Beijing sweetened its bid with an offer to barter the rocket for partial payment in Indonesian crude oil, palm oil, plywood, and fertilizer.
China plans to bid for the launch of two telecommunications satellites for Mexico, according to the official newspaper China Daily.