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Anomaly spoils China's string of successful launches

Posted: August 31, 2009

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Breaking a 13-year streak of successful launches, a Chinese Long March rocket failed to deliver an Indonesian communications satellite to its planned orbit Monday.

Carrying the Palapa D telecommunications satellite, a Long March 3B rocket blasted off from the Xichang launch base in southwestern China at 0928 GMT (5:28 a.m. EDT) Monday.

The three-stage launcher, boosted by four liquid-fueled strap-on engines, flew as expected during the first few minutes of the flight.

But a failure occurred about 20 minutes after liftoff as the third stage was scheduled to ignite for its second burn of the mission, according to the official state-run Xinhua news agency.

The third stage is powered by two YF-75 engines fueled by a mix of liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen, according to China Great Wall Industry Corp., the international marketing arm of the country's launch industry.

The engines apparently completed the first of two burns to place the rocket and Palapa D into a parking orbit.

Xinhua reported the third stage encountered problems during the second ignition, but it was not clear if the engines failed to fire or shut down early.

"Experts are investigating," the Xinhua report said.

The 41-foot-long third stage produces about 35,000 pounds of thrust in flight, first to send payloads into low-altitude parking orbits and then to propel spacecraft into egg-shaped geosynchronous transfer orbits.

The stage, which is also used on other Long March rockets, has never been responsible for a launch failure before Monday, according to Chinese launch records.

According to U.S. military tracking data, Palapa D is circling Earth on a path with a high point of about 13,150 miles, a low point of approximately 130 miles and an inclination of around 22 degrees.

Palapa D's planned orbit was not published before launch. It is unclear whether the satellite will be able to reach its operational station 22,300 miles above Earth in geosynchronous orbit.

The satellite was built by Thales Alenia Space of France for Indosat, an Indonesian telecommunications firm.

Palapa D's C-band and Ku-band communications payloads were designed to cover a swath of territory stretching from Australia to India. The satellite had a life expectancy of 15 years.

Television broadcasters and corporate customers were expected to use Palapa D's communications capacity.

The satellite was ordered as a replacement for the aging Palapa C2 spacecraft launched in 1996. Palapa C2 is expected to cease operations in 2011.

Indosat officials said in 2007 they invested between $200 million and $300 million for construction and launch of the satellite.

Monday's launch marked the 12th flight of a Long March 3B rocket, which had successfully launched 10 times since its debut mission suffered a deadly accident in 1996.

Attempting to launch a U.S. communications satellite, the rocket flew off course moments after liftoff and crashed into a nearby village, killing Chinese civilians.

Since a different launch failure later in 1996, all Long March rocket variants had amassed 75 straight flawless flights in a streak spanning almost 13 years.

China's workhorse rocket family includes seven derivatives to launch a wide variety of payloads, ranging from commercial and military satellites to scientific probes and piloted Shenzhou missions.

Monday's anomaly could deal a blow to China's aspirations to gain a greater share of the global launch industry. The Long March 3B is the country's primary launcher for commercial missions.