By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, May 14, 2007
BEIJING, May 14 -- China announced Monday that it had launched a Chinese-manufactured communications satellite into orbit on behalf of Nigeria, marking the first time China has built a commercial satellite and put it into orbit on contract for another country.
The launch, in Monday's pre-dawn hours from the Xichang space center in southwestern Sichuan province, was viewed as another sign of China's increasing prowess in space and its determination to be among the world's great powers seeking to utilize the reaches of outer space for benefits on Earth.
The country's space agency, which is managed by the military, sent two astronauts into orbit in October 2005 in its second manned spaceflight. The government last week adopted a 10-year plan for expanded space exploration, including more manned flights as well as unmanned probes of the moon and beyond.
Because of its military management and Beijing's recent emphasis on space-based information warfare, China's space program and its rapid progress have caused worries in the United States. The concern intensified following the successful Jan. 11 test-firing of an anti-satellite missile, which some analysts said demonstrated a risk to the many satellites on which U.S. military forces rely for navigation and weapons guidance.
But Monday's launch of the NIGCOMSAT-1, aboard a Long March 3B rocket, represented more of a commercial challenge, Chinese officials said. The official New China News Agency said China secured the $311 million contract in 2004 in a bidding process in which 21 other companies took part.
Wang Haibo, president of the Great Wall Industry Corp., told reporters earlier that the Nigerian contract ushers China onto the short list of countries that can build, launch and maintain a satellite for other nations. In the 1990s, China frequently launched satellites for other countries -- but after they were manufactured elsewhere -- and acquired a reputation for providing such services more cheaply than other launch-capable countries. About 30 such contracts have been signed for future launches, Chinese officials said.
In addition, the new launch was seen as a symbol of China's broad network of economic relations with Africa. As its economy forges ahead, with growth of nearly 10 percent a year, China has been particularly eager to establish commercial relations with oil-producing nations such as Nigeria.
"The satellite represents China's wish to cooperate with developing countries in the peaceful use of outer space and to promote a closer relationship between China and African countries," the official news agency said.
The launch was hailed by Nigerian officials, however, as a breakthrough in getting away from exclusive reliance on oil. Hammed Rufai, Nigeria's managing director of the NIGCOMSAT-1 project, told the news agency that the satellite will help Nigeria move toward knowledge-based industries. Other officials said Nigeria hopes to sell communications bands to neighboring African countries.
Chinese officials said the geostationary satellite will provide communications services over Africa and parts of the Middle East and southern Europe. It will go into operation by the end of the year, they said, and is expected to last 15 years.
The satellite will be managed from a control station in Abuja, the Nigerian capital.