November 20, 2008

Nigerians in U.S. divided over 'missing' satellite

SHOULD the Federal Government seek the assistance of the United States (U.S.) space agency to help resolve the Nigerian Communications Satellite's (NigComSat-1) disappearance in orbit? Nigerians in the U.S. are offering divergent opinions.

While some of them are offering the Federal Government assistance regarding the satellite, which is facing an almost certain disappearance in space, others are urging caution since Nigeria had chosen to go with China and not the U.S. to launch it.

In fact, some U.S.-based Nigerians who are also American citizens have already contacted the Federal Government offering to get help through the U.S. National Space and Aeronautics Agency (NASA), according to Dr. Baba Adam, a top university administrator.

Adam, who spoke on behalf of some Nigerians who have access to NASA, said its competence in such matters is well known. He believed that the U.S. agency's intervention "may resolve the issue of losing N40 billion and also address the usage disruptions caused by the satellite's failure."

Adam, who confirmed that an initial contact has been made with top Federal Government officials, said even it was Nigeria that is being ridiculed. "This may be a technical or design flaw from the Chinese," who designed and installed the satellite.

The Managing Director of the Nigerian Communications Satellite Limited, Mr. Ahmed Rufai, had confirmed to The Guardian that the chances of recovering the satellite were very slim. He said although the project contractors, China Great Wall Industry Corporation, were yet to make any categorical statement on the possibility of recovery, yet he affirmed that "from our observatory here in Abuja, the chances are slim."

The Nigerian Communications Satellite Limited (NigComSat) may have, therefore, foreclosed the recovery of the parked NigComSat-1 powered down eight days ago as a result of a solar panel power shut-out.

But Adam insisted that NASA could help identify the problem, while also calling on the National Assembly to investigate the matter thoroughly in order to "avoid future embarrassments."

Stressing the urgency of the situation, Adam noted that "everyday the un-powered satellite loses altitude/orbit - as it happens right now - it will become harder to fix this problem - so sooner this issue is addressed the better."

Besides, Adam said the planned launch of the second satellite should put on hold until the issue of the current satellite is resolved."

He added that with "the exception of NASA - I am not sure who has the capabilities of quickly assisting Nigeria on this issue. May be a new battery pack or Solar Arrays may be installed on the Nigerian satellite - just like the upgrade to the U.S. Hubble Space telescope, International Space Station and other space-crafts and satellites serviced in orbit," all of which were handled by NASA!

On the other hand, there is also the concern among Nigerians in the U.S. that the NigComSat-1 crisis may have international political dimensions bothering on the possibility of a sabotage.

For instance, a Nigerian expert, who did not want to be named, said: "When China builds and launches a communications satellite for Nigeria and other African countries, it means rival powers are shut out from possible intelligence benefits of monopolistic access to communications (SIGINT) in the affected countries.

"It is not far-fetched, therefore, to envisage sabotage, followed by negative publicity and a reflexive review of the whole Sino-Nigerian or Sino-African relationship - resulting in an invitation for those same rival powers to get in on the show 'to help' and thus get access to previously unavailable secret data about Nigeria's space programme that until now was monopolised by the Chinese."

The Guardian yesterday learnt that preparatory to the eventual shut-down of the satellite, the power supply to the system had dropped from 42 amps 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.

It was also gathered that the Chinese contractor was yet to properly handover the management of the satellite to NigComSat, and that this is due on May 13, next year. The Chinese had entered into an agreement for 15 years technical back-up, which began on May 14, last year when the satellite was launched.

Sources said that if the system was not powered down, the insurers would have denied any culpability for what could have amounted to negligence on the side of Nigeria and the managers of the system.

NigComSat-1 thus joins 18 other satellites that disappeared and parked in orbit since January this year.

In fact, it is the 18th. Its safe mode power failure occurred the same day, November 10, that Orbcomm satellite had its problems announced to the global community.

Meanwhile, Rufai yesterday said that satellite was insured for 120 million Euros (about N20.4 billion) by the Chinese company.

Rufai, who disclosed this at a meeting the House of Representatives Committee on Science and Technology, however, allayed fears that a lot would be lost, saying that it could still be rectified. He urged the committee to appeal to the Federal Government to still negotiate with the Chinese government and manufacturer of the facility for an alternative satellite.

Rufai also urged the committee to prevail on the government to approve the utilisation of $500 million (about N57.5 billion) China EXIM Bank concessionary loan for NigComSat-2 and 3 advance series for expansion.

He said the award of contracts for manufacturing and launch of the NigComSat-1 followed due process and was given to this Chinese while the supervision was given to Telesat, Canada."

He further said: "The short-term strategy involves minimising the company's exposure to contractual liabilities to its customers whilst provisioning for the many projects undertaken by the company, including the community TeleCentres, NITEL revitalisation plan, etc.

The short-term strategy includes the bulk purchase of bandwidth under a back-up services agreement with a foreign operator with a satellite with footprints and powerful eire as NigComSat-1.

"This will not only provide the necessary succour to the company's numerous customers but also go a long way towards restoring confidence in the company's goodwill."

Rufai, who maintained that the unfortunate situation was not the first incidence, explained that a private satellite operator recorded six failures on six satellites on the same day while the industry recorded a total of over 18 losses last year.

Rufai, who expressed regrets over the incident said: "The batteries are only supposed to discharge during eclipse and recharge when in non-eclipse situation while the solar array serves as the source of power to the satellite.

"This anomaly was noticed by NIGCOMSAT LTD engineers on night duty and reported to the satellite manufacturer.

"The satellite was consequently de-orbited to avoid total loss of power and control of the satellite which could result in damages to other satellites in the orbit or even aircraft in flight." guardian online

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