Francis Okeke & Hamisu Muhammad — Nigeria's pioneer NigComsat 1-satellite, launched into space with fanfare last year, has been damaged beyond repairs and "has now been manoeuvred to the parking orbit and cannot be recovered for use again," managing director of Nigeria Communications Satellite Limited (NCSL) Alhaji Ahmed Rufa'i said in Abuja yesterday.
He spoke when he appeared before the House of Representatives' Committee on Science and Technology to clarify on recent reports on the state of the satellite.
He told the committee, chaired by Rep Akinlade Abiodun (PDP, Ogun) that the loss experienced on NigComSat-1 barely 18 months after it was sent into orbit was neither uncommon in the industry nor bizarre. He said "a private satellite operator in America recorded six failures on six satellites on the same day. In fact, the industry records reveal a total of 18 losses in 2008 alone. This informs the rationale for backup satellites and insurance as experts advice that a lone satellite is a decided gamble."
Rufa'i said the problem that resulted in the eventual loss of the satellite began about eight months ago. "The first incident occurred on 17th April 2008 when half of the power was lost from the South Solar Array due to a single event offset, leaving the North Solar Array as the only source of power. Unfortunately, a similar event occurred on the North Solar panel on 9th November 2008 at 10:34 Nigerian time during a non-eclipse position."
He said the batteries of the satellite were only supposed to discharge during eclipse and recharge in non-eclipse situations while the solar array served as the source of power to the satellite. He said, "This anomaly was noticed by NigComSat Ltd engineers on night duty and reported to the satellite manufacturer, China Great Wall Industry Corporation (CGWIC). Both teams worked tirelessly for over 24 hours to perform a rescue operation on the satellite."
The NigComSat MD said that all efforts to recover the power supply of the solar panels failed and the satellite was consequently de-orbited to avoid total loss of power and loss of control of the satellite, which could result in damage to other satellites in orbit or even to aircraft in flight.
This would mean heavy fines from the International Telecommunications Union and liabilities to other nations under the United Nations Outer Space Treaties, he said.
He also said, "On Monday 9th November, 2008, the process of de-orbiting was concluded and the satellite has now been manoeuvred to the parking orbit and cannot be recovered for use again."
He urged Nigerians not to worry over the collapse of NigComsat-1, saying that it was fully insured and that the money spent "shouldn't be considered as money down the drain."
"While we are very saddened that the incident happened, it is not money down the drain as being reported in some quarters and it is not due to management inexperience or ineptitude as being reported because the satellite is fully insured. We have not taken over the management of the satellite from China."
"The Chinese themselves have written to us, they have committed to getting a quick solution to Nigeria.
The Chinese Government contributed about $200 million in this project and the collateral for this loan is the satellite. The loan itself was negotiated under the able leadership of the former Minister of Finance Mrs. Okonjo Iweala, which even though we have a sovereign guarantee for this loan, the collateral is the satellite because we try to tie them in into this project."
On steps taken so far by NCSL and the Chinese on short term plans of addressing the issue, he said the Chinese "have written, they are coming in on Friday to meet with us over the weekend and by Monday to meet with the Honourable Ministers, Science and Technology and Finance for us to have a concrete way forward in terms of if it comes to replacement and also the possibility of now setting up a backup for NigComSat 2 and 3, which will imply that within the next two and a half years, we will have at least 3 satellites in space."
Speaking on the impact of the loss to NSCL, he said "we are sorry to find ourselves in this situation. At NigComsat, we are confident that it is a challenge, it is a part of the experience that nearly every single operator in this industry has faced and is facing. There is no single operator today that has not faced one failure or the other."
"Ours is even like a child that is trying to walk; when you make first attempt and you stand up and you fall down, that doesn't mean you continue to crawl just because you fall. So, we are confident that we are going to stand up again and we are going to be much stronger," he added.
As a stop gap measure, Rufa'i requested the Committee to help the Ministry of Science and Technology and NCSL to convince the Federal Executive Council and President Umaru Yar'adua to discuss with the Chinese government and the satellite manufacturer to re-assign an emergency satellite that is either in orbit or being presently manufactured, with same specifications as NigComSat-1 to the nation as replacement.
He also wants the President's approval for the commencement of the building of NigComSat-1 replacement, as well as the approval of the utilization of $500million China Exim Bank concessionary loan for NigComSat-2 and 3 advanced series for back up and expansion.
On the desire by the Committee to look elsewhere instead of Chinese technology and expertise, Rufa'i said they would gladly welcome other countries "If they can finance it up to 80 per cent at two and a half percent interest rate, give us 20 years re-payment period and 5 years moratorium" as the Chinese were doing.
Meanwhile, the Press Secretary of the Ministry of Science and Technology, Abdulganiu Aminu in a statement yesterday said that the President of CGWIC is expected to arrive Nigeria soon to make technical explanations on the missing satellite.
He said Minister of Science and Technology Mrs. Grace Ekphiwhre summoned a meeting yesterday during which all the critical issues concerning the current status of the satellite, the technical agreement between Nigeria and China, the insurance of the satellite and the fate of the clientele were discussed.