Nigerian satellite breaks down in orbit affecting broadband internet services

1 Comment » November 25th, 2008 posted by // Categories: Science & Technology




Friday, November 21, 2008    

Nigerian satellite breaks down in orbit affecting broadband internet services

On Monday night, Nigeria’s Satellite Communication, NigComSat, which was launched to provide phone, broadband Internet and broadcasting services to rural Africa, spinned out of orbit, as it experienced power failure. Nike Sotade and Felix Ugwuoke write on the economic implication of the satellite breakdown to the country.

GOING, going…gone! That is the story of NigComSat-1, the Nigerian satellite that was launched amidst funfair last year. The Nigerian satellite, a multi-million dollar communication satellite is spinning out of control just 18 months after its launch. The Chinese built NigComSat at a cost to Nigeria of $340 million. Hailed at its launch last year as the vanguard of an African communications revolution, Nigcomsat-1 has failed and cannot be recovered, officials said on Wednesday.

The satellite, which was launched to provide phone, broadband Internet and broadcasting services to rural Africa, was switched off last week due to a battery- charging problem. With an expected life span of 15 years, it is designed to operate in Africa, parts of the Middle East and Asia. NIGCOMSAT-1 was also used for intelligence and security surveillance and for other sectors such as the oil and gas industry.


The satellite which was built and launched by China has been knocked out of service due to a power failure, a spokeswoman for China’s launch services provider said Thursday. The satellite was switched off on Monday for analysis, they said, dismissing media speculation it was lost in outer space.

NIGCOMSAT-1, ceased functioning early last Tuesday Beijing time, said Geng Kun, the spokeswoman for Great Wall Industry Corp., the company that sent the satellite into orbit atop a Long March 3-B rocket in May 2007.

“The solar wing malfunctioned, which led to exhaustion of electric power, then the satellite failed,” Geng said.

Most satellites carry solar panels on an extendable wing to generate electricity, with backup batteries activated only when in the earth’s shadow.

Intended to expand cell phone and Internet services in central Africa, the satellite’s launch last year was hailed as the first time a foreign buyer had purchased a Chinese satellite and its launching service. It was built by the China Academy of Space Technology as part of a $311 million deal signed by China and Nigeria in 2004.

The Guardian reported on Tuesday that hopes of recovering the satellite may have been foreclosed due to a solar panel power shut-out.

The Guardian learnt that preparatory to the eventual shut-down of the satellite, power supply to the system had dropped from 42amps to 33 and hit 18 amps by Monday night, a situation which may have created bigger problems for NigComSat and its owners, the Federal government, if it was not powered down.

According to the report, the Chinese contractor China Great Wall Industry Corporation, was yet to hand over the management of the satellite to NigComSat with the proper handover date due on May 2009, the Chinese having entered into an agreement for 15years technical back-up, which began on May 14, 2007 when the satellite was launched.

The Guardian also learnt that if the system was not powered down, the insurers would have denied any culpability for what could have amounted to negligence on Nigeria’s side and the managers of the system.

The managing director of the company Mr Ahmed Rufai told The Guardian that although the contractors are yet to make any categorical statement on the potential for recovery, ” from our observatory here in Abuja, the chances are slim.”

With the failure in orbit, NigComSat-1 has joined the list of satellites which have disappeared and parked in the orbit since the beginning of this year.

Nigerian Communications Satellite Ltd. Marketing Manager Abimbola Alale said technicians were working to diagnose the exact problem with the solar panel, but warned a fix could take “some time.” Alale said the satellite had been placed into an emergency operating mode to enable the technical work.

Launched by the Xichang Satellite Centre in Sichuan province last yea, the cost for the satellite spacecraft and ground stations in Abuja and China was $256 million out of which the Chinese government underwrote $200 million while the Federal Government contributed $56 million. The satellite itself was accepted as collateral.

Rufai explained that Chinese government granted the loan to be repaid in 20 years at the interest rate of 2.5 per cent yearly with a five-year moratorium.

“So with the coverage for NigComSat-1, the government of China is ready to replace the NigComSat-1 and still build NigComsat-2 and 3 at no cost to Nigeria.”

Rufai said the mistake made in NigComSat-1 was principally because there was no back-up power. “It was taken for granted but in subsequent ones, that will be taken into serious consideration.”

Organisations affected by the shut-down include the National Open University of Nigeria (NOUN), Zenth Bank, Intercontinental Bank, Diamond Bank, Skye Bank, Visafone, Etisalat, Security and Exchange Commission (SEC) and some security outfits such as PC4 and CIT.

As an interim measure, Rufai said NigComSat was ready to migrate its customers to other leased satellite pending when a new satellite would be put in place.

While agreeing that businesses connected to the satellite may have incurred severe losses, he said NigComSat was willing to go beyond the contract it signed with them.

With the launch before the expiration of his tenure last year, critics said the device was a white elephant project that was hurriedly executed by former president Olusegun Obasanjo. Many wondered why government could dabble into such an expensive project when many citizens are unemployed and in desperate need of what to eat.

But stakeholders in the communication industry explained that NigSatCom was a viable investment.

Mr Lanre Ajayi, President of the Nigeria Internet Group (NIG) said: ” I won’t say that money invested in the project was a waste. It is an important infrastructure that we need in the country. I think it was a good investment but we didn’t anticipate that a collapse could happen so soon. There is demand for band-width and government was proactive in trying to build our own satellite to generate income for the country. I think the concept was a good one but government should have been more selective regarding the partners chosen to join in the project.”

To Ajayi, government shouldn’t have chosen China as a business partner in the project. “It is like using Nigeria as a guinea pig for their experiment because there are other countries such as Russia and America who are more experienced in space technology who could have partnered with Nigeria in such a huge project. The Chinese are just building their capacity in that area and the more they practice, the more they perfect their system.”

While noting that his company did not subscribe to NigComSat services, Ajayi anticipated the side effects of the breakdown to the internet subscribers.

” Generally, there is a scarcity of internet band width by satellite. So when major suppliers go out of it, it would increase the existing scarcity. So when there is less supply, prices tend to go up.”

A legal practitioner based in Lagos Barrister Goddy Uwazuruike said that the economic implication of broken down Nigerian satellite was that Nigeria as a country may have lost her investment in that venture. He regretted that Nigeria spent about N40 billion naira in the project.

” Why did they ever go to China that is a margin in the satellite market?” he queried.

To Uwazurike, “the real economic implication is that all those telephone operators, it does not matter whether it is internet, television or telecom, may have been put out of business because all of them have a link up to the satellite. And for these operators, this is the only business they do and earn a living.

On the legal implication of the crashed satellite he said, ” there is what we call manufacturers’ warranty apart from the insurance of the object, the major project. Nobody invests money into a mega business like a satellite without the manufacturer warranty.”

” The manufacturer warranty and insurance would give the firm or company certificate to work for some years so that where the company defaults, there would be penalty enshrined in the contract. But in Nigeria, such protocol would not be followed and where it was followed, you discover that foreign lawyers would be used leaving Nigerian lawyers because they don’t want to pay them. Most of our leaders rely on foreign lawyers of the companies they deal with who will go ahead to write the terms of the contract in a way that will favour them.”

He sighted the power probe as a typical example where all the power project contractors’ lawyers were summoned only to discover that the terms of contract were written in the favour of the contractors and now, the Nigerian government is at crossroads on what to do. So, my fear is that the exact thing that happened in the power probe might have repeated itself in the Nigerian Satellite Communication project,” he observed.

He said: ” The only solution left for Nigeria is the insurance payment and that is only if Nigeria was a beneficiary of the insurance payment. In a business of this sort, especially where two different countries were involved, a country going into huge investment like that should carry along its own lawyers. But where lawyers of a given country were not involved at least to protect the interest of the country, well anything can happen.”

“Now, that the interest of the country was not protected in the contract terms with the Chinese company as no Nigerian lawyer was involved doing the drafting of contract. The contract might have been written in favour of the Chinese company and if that is the case, there is no way we can get them legally. Bakassi issue was messed up because Nigerian lawyers were not involved, he revealed.

But according to information made available to The Guardian, the breakdown of satellites is not peculiar to Nigeria as it has happened to other countries, too. Hence it is a common occurrence.

Paul Ceruzzi curator of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum explained what could be wrong with the Nigerian satellite.

” Satellite, once it is placed in orbit, has to be managed so that it points in the right direction, just like driving a car down the road. The antennas have to point to the ground, the solar panels have to point to the sun and they must have fuel on board that powers tiny rockets that do that or other means of stabilizing it. But sometimes they run out of fuel or Sat system breaks down. Then it stays there in orbit and begins to tumble, if it loses contact with the solar panels or is no longer pointing at the sun, then it loses electrical power. If the antennas are no longer pointing at the ground, then there is no way to communicate with it. So it becomes kind of dangerous piece of junk flying at 17,000 miles an hour; it can be a serious problem.”

Ceruzzi, however, says it is unusual for new satellites to fail. “In the early days of the space program things like that happened a lot, actually, unfortunately, but over the years they have gotten more reliable, but it does happen. It has happened from time to time and the other issue of course is that all satellites, eventually run out of fuel and they potentially can have the same fate unless people do things to actively manage them for that day. But for something to fail so soon after launch is rare today but it does happen”.

Ceruzzi says it is difficult to have an advance warnings of the precise location where a satellite might come down. Scientists may have such a warning “only in the few hours or so before it actually comes down. It could stay up there for months or years even and then atmospheric drag will slowly bring it out of orbit. And then, only at the very last moment, do you really know where it is going to hit.”

On Tuesday the head of NigComSat Ahmed Rufai told lawmakers in the administrative capital Abuja that efforts to recover power supply had failed.

“The satellite was subsequently de-orbited to avoid total loss of power and control which would result in damages to other satellites in orbit or even aircrafts,” Rufai was quoted as saying by local dailies.

“The satellite has now been manoeuvred to the parking orbit and cannot be recovered for use again,” he said.

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One Response to “Nigerian satellite breaks down in orbit affecting broadband internet services”

  1. Standford says:

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