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Updated: August 12, 2011 20:44 IST

Satellite launch for Pak signals China’s growing space ambitions

Ananth Krishnan
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China's Long March-3B rocket, carrying Pakistan's communications satellite PAKSAT-1R, blasts off into space on Friday from the Xichang Satellite Launch Centre in China's Sichuan Province.
Xinhua China's Long March-3B rocket, carrying Pakistan's communications satellite PAKSAT-1R, blasts off into space on Friday from the Xichang Satellite Launch Centre in China's Sichuan Province.

China launched Pakistan’s first communications satellite on Friday morning from a sprawling launch centre in western Sichuan province, marking a deepening in technological cooperation between the close allies as well as a boost for the country’s fast-growing commercial satellite industry.

The PAKSAT-1R satellite, carried into orbit by a Long March-3B carrier rocket, carries 30 transponders on board and will provide communications services, including broadband Internet, telecom and broadcasting, covering parts of South Asia, Europe, West Asia and eastern Africa, the official Xinhua news agency said in a report.

Pakistan Foreign Secretary Salman Bashir, who was at the site, said the launch was “yet another shining illustration of the time-tested friendship between Pakistan and China and has ushered in a new era of cooperation in space technology between the two countries.”

The PAKSAT-1R satellite was China’s first “in-orbit delivery” for an Asian country, as well as the country’s first commercial satellite export this year.

The launch comes amid a recent push by China’s state-owned telecommunications companies to expand their interests overseas.

Chinese companies are particularly reaching out to developing countries, offering both financial assistance in the form of loans and cost-competitiveness in comparison with Western companies.

Only earlier this week, the China Great Wall Industry Corporation (GWIC), which was behind the PAKSAT-1R project, signed a $294-million deal with Bolivia for the building and launch of a satellite. The China Development Bank will help Bolivia fund the deal.

“If we had signed satellite contracts with developed Western countries, it would have cost at least $350 million for the whole project,” Ivan Zambrana, executive general director of the Bolivian Space Agency, told the official China Daily in an interview this week.

He said unlike Western companies “which would seek to keep aerospace technology secret”, China was also offering technological assistance to Bolivian workers.

China’s space cooperation has particularly focused on South American countries, starting with the China-Brazil Earth Resources Satellite (CBERS) programme in the 1980s. South America has strategic importance for China because of its proximity to the United States.

“Brazil was important in terms of looking around the South American and North American [air]space,” said Srikanth Kondapalli, professor of Chinese studies and an expert on the Chinese military at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). ”There are estimates that of 100 U.S. satellites, 40 are [trained] on China, getting accurate information. So, just as the U.S. is doing, China is also snooping around.”

In 2005, China also set up the Asia-Pacific Space Cooperation Organisation (APSCO), along with Pakistan, Bangladesh, Iran, Mongolia, Peru and Thailand, to boost cooperation in the region.

The PAKSAT-1R was one of the first major overseas ventures of GWIC, which signed a deal with Pakistan’s Space and Upper Atmosphere Research Commission in 2008. Pakistan’s first low-orbit satellite was also launched by China, in 1990.

GWIC has also signed two deals with the Nigerian government for telecom satellites, built one spacecraft for Venezuela and also assisting Laos with launching a communications satellite.

“We encourage and help the countries to start their satellite industries from small-scale satellites,” Zhao Xiaojin, who head the aerospace department at the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation, told the China Daily in a recent interview.

“We will provide not only service related to satellite manufacturing and launching, but also personnel training and transfers of technology, which will help the countries build up their own satellite industries.”

China has also launched its own global navigation system, called Compass or Beidou, which Chinese officials say will create a 400 billion yuan ($61.5 billion) market by 2020.

Compass, which Chinese officials say will function similar to the American-developed Global Positioning System (GPS) and Russia’s own global navigation system, is being used by the Chinese military and also for civilian purposes, including the fishing industry, meteorology, transport and telecommunications.

Ran Chengqi, director of the China Satellite Navigation Management Office, told a recent satellite industry conference in Shanghai that he forecast the market value of the global navigation industry to exceed $ 400 billion by 2020.

This April, China launched the eighth Compass satellite. Mr. Ran said China will launch eight more navigation satellites before the end of next year to cover the Asia-Pacific, and the system will use as many as 35 satellites when completed.

This month, China is also expected to launch its first space laboratory module, Tiangong-1, which will form a part of the country’s first ever space station.

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