First published in The Age on January 31, 1993

That lost satellite: Optus picks up the pieces in China

An isolated community of Chinese peasants has taken a giant step toward solving the mystery of the ill-fated $250-million Optus satellite that was to have brought pay-TV to Australia. Much of it, it seems, simply came back to Earth.

Optus B-series satellite.

Five weeks after the Chinese-launched satellite was lost about 1000 kilometres out in space, its manufacturer, the Hughes Aircraft Company, has revealed that villagers near the remote town of Xichang, In China’s south-west, have been stumbling on space Junk.

A spokesman for Hughes, Mr Richard Barlow, said the Chinese were at first unaware of the importance of the strange, high-strength debris they were finding around their mountainous neighbourhood.

But, after several search parties, the company’s Los Angeles headquarters has recently taken delivery of several tonnes of the former satellite from Xichang, in Sichuan province, birthplace of the Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping.

Mr Barlow said he did not know if there had been any reports of injuries caused by falling space junk.

Optus planned to use the satellite, Communications B2, to provide pay-TV to Australia within the next two years. But, just as the Federal Government’s pay-TV policies have been plagued by controversy, the satellite’s sudden disappearance on 22 December marked another setback.

Optus boss Bob Mansfield (r) breathes a mighty sigh of relief after the B3 successfully launches in 1994 after B2s failure.Credit:Phil Carrick

Last March, the launch of Optus’s B1 satellite was aborted because of an ignition failure. It was later successfully launched. Optus says B1 is ready to beam pay-TV to Australia.

Mr Barlow said Hughes scientists were now examining the satellite fragments and trying to discover the cause of the accident. It was, he said, a huge jigsaw, much like the investigation into the Lockerbie air disaster in Scotland.

“They’ve got lots of bits and pieces, (and) they’re trying to put them together again,” he said. “There is a lot of material in these satellites.”

It is believed that the satellite was unable to enter its long-term orbit after an internal explosion, although, as Mr Barlow conceded, the exact cause of the accident may never be known.

The Chinese satellite launch company, the China Great Wall Industrial Corporation, originally denied the launch was a failure. It is now assisting Optus and Hughes to investigate the crash.

Satellite trackers in Sydney and Canada first noticed that the Communications B2 satellite was missing the day after the launch, when the first signals failed to arrive.

Hughes then enlisted the North American Air Defence Company (NORAD) to find the rocket. NORAD has since identified it among an estimated 25,000 other pieces of space junk. It is orbiting Earth elliptically at between 200 and 1000 kilometres.

Mr Barlow said it appeared that the rocket’s booster engine, designed to take it up to 38,000 kilometres above Earth, had failed. The parts of the satellite not found in China are also believed to be riding with the rocket.

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