Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The failed satellite

THE disappearance of Nigeria's satellite, NigComSat 1, in space is scandalous; it is a national embarrassment that calls for detailed investigation of the entire project. For the N40 billion satellite to malfunction barely 18 months after it was launched leaves much to be desired. What quality of satellite was launched into orbit that could pack up in so short a time?

Though this is a typical Nigerian story, it is irritating and characteristic of the country's chequered history of wastage. The Minister of State for Science and Technology, Dr. Alhassan Zaku had confirmed that NigComSat 1, as the satellite is known, actually developed technical problems that "resulted in the inability of the operational batteries to be charged by the solar panels".

According to him, the Nigerian and Chinese engineers stationed in Abuja and China detected the fault at about 4.00 a.m. on Tuesday, November 4. Efforts were made to effect repairs but apparently to no avail. A decision was therefore taken to park the satellite out of orbit "in order not to cause damage to other satellites".

NigComSAt is a super hybrid geo-stationary satellite reportedly designed to operate in Africa, parts of the Middle East and Southern Europe. It was expected to digitalise the Nigerian economy and promote technological advancement in Nigeria and Africa.

The contract to build and launch the satellite was signed in Abuja in 2004 between the National Space Research and Development Agency (NSRDA) and China Great Wall Industry Corporation at a cost of over N40 billion. The cost includes, among others, construction, insurance, as well as the building of one ground station in Abuja and a backup control station in Kashgar, China, with four gateways located in South Africa, China, Italy and Northern Nigeria.

When the satellite was blasted off from Xichang Satellite Launch Centre in China's Sichuan Province on May 14, 2007, expectations were very high. It was thought that Nigeria would consolidate on the breakthrough to become the technological hub of Africa and an emerging player in the global terrain. Unfortunately, since its launch, the satellite has not worked. It has not justified the huge expenditure on it. Basic questions should be asked about the genuineness of the entire project.

How could a satellite that cost so much and with a lifespan of 15 years operate for only 18 months? What type of satellite is it? Is this not the same type of satellite that the United States and Russia, among others have been launching into space over the decades?

Nigerians need more detailed explanations than the Federal Government is currently offering. The public has been told that both the satellite and ground stations were insured and that the China Great Wall Corporation has been told to provide a replacement. Every step should be taken to ensure that the more than N40 billion expended on the project so far does not go up in smoke. NigComSat is the second DFH-4 satellite built by the Chinese that would fail in orbit. What are the details of the contract with the Chinese? Was there any warranty on the satellite's performance? What kind of contract did we sign?

There are reports that inferior materials were used in building the satellite and that the satellite was built to fail from the very beginning. A few months after its launch, the International Communications Union allegedly informed the Nigerian government that the satellite was wrongly positioned. Nothing was done about this. Besides, there were indications that the satellite was using a technological standard that was not meant for Africa but Asia. We demand full explanation on all of these. Except this is done, NigComSat would have turned out to be a white elephant project, and a pure gamble.

It is regrettable that Nigeria lacks the technical infrastructure to manage a satellite in space. We don't even have the local technological know-how to investigate the circumstances surrounding the failure of the satellite. We rely on turn-key projects executed by foreign concerns. And yet there are many educated Nigerians with the expertise, but who are in other countries abroad due to the absence of an enabling environment at home.

Ironically, there has been much talk about the likely launch of an alternative satellite, with NigComSat seeking approval for a concessionary loan of N59 billion for the construction of NigComSat 2. While we appreciate the need for government to be optimistic and venture into new areas that would enhance the country's developmental goals, we do not subscribe to the idea of wasting scarce national resources on spurious projects.

It is scandalous that the Nigerian Satellite is missing. What has been the function of the officials at NigComSat? Were they keeping track of the satellite at all? The National Space Research and Development Agency should take a critical look at the entire space programme before launching another satellite.