Satellite Launched by Chinese Has Disappeared, Owners Say

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A telecommunications satellite built by Hughes Aircraft Corp. and launched by China with self-congratulatory fanfare has apparently malfunctioned, blown up or otherwise disappeared, the Australian owners said Tuesday.

What Beijing thought was a successful Monday launch was top news in Tuesday morning's major Chinese newspapers, with photographs of the launch splashed on front pages.

But later in the day, David Foster, spokesman for Optus Communications, owner of the satellite, told the Associated Press that the satellite cannot be located and that the company has virtually given it up for lost. "We haven't been receiving . . . any signals at all," he said. "We can't track it. It might have blown up. . . . Nobody knows what's happened to it. We don't know whether it's a fault with the rocket or the satellite or a combination of both."

The satellite was launched at 7:20 p.m. Monday from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in southwest China's Sichuan province by a 54-yard-tall, four-booster Long March 2-E rocket. China had successfully launched another Optus satellite, also made by Hughes, on Aug. 14. That came after an earlier launch attempt this spring was aborted on the launching pad due to an ignitions system failure.

Optus' contract with Hughes was for $345 million for the manufacture, launch and insurance of the two satellites, according to Optus. Hughes, in effect, subcontracted the launch to China.

The satellite was meant to relay telephone calls, computer data and a new pay television service and was to begin sending out signals about 14 hours after the launch. Foster said Optus will keep trying to locate it but has little hope of finding it in workable condition.

As of midnight Tuesday, China still had not reported the satellite's disappearance. If the failure is found to be the fault of the Chinese side, it could mean a serious setback for China's ambitious goals in the commercial space launch business. The state-owned launch company, China Great Wall Industry Corp., held a celebratory banquet Tuesday at a Beijing Hotel. Optus and Hughes officials did not attend, and Chinese officials made no mention of the satellite's disappearance.

Beijing appears to be taking the position that if there is a problem with the satellite, it is Hughes' fault. A spokeswoman for China Great Wall told Associated Press: "We have completed our launch responsibilities. We had no problems."

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