CANNES, France - A Chinese Long March 3B rocket on July 5 successfully orbited ChinaSatcom's Chinasat 6B telecommunications satellite, the fourth satellite built for Chinese satellite-fleet operators by Thales Alenia Space - the sole Western satellite builder that has developed a product line designed to avoid U.S. satellite component export restrictions.
Building satellites devoid of U.S. components permits the spacecraft to be launched on a Chinese launch vehicle. Current U.S. government policy effectively bars U.S. satellite components from being exported to China.
Officials from Thales Alenia Space, which is headquartered here, confirmed that Chinasat 6B was healthy in orbit following the launch from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in southwest China's Sichuan Province. The spacecraft, a Spacebus 4000 C2 satellite frame, weighed 9,920 pounds (4,500 kilograms) at launch and carries 38 C-band transponders. ChinaSatcom intends to operate it from 115.5 degrees east longitude to provide up to 300 television programs in China and elsewhere in East Asia.
Thales Alenia Space has been cultivating the Chinese satellite market for more than 20 years. The company, under its former name Alcatel Alenia Space, built components for the Chinasat 1 satellite before moving toward completed products. The company is the prime contractor for the Sinosat 1, Apstar 6 and Chinasat 9 satellites, in addition to Chinasat 6B.
Thales Alenia Space officials say getting around U.S. State Department restrictions - generally referred to as ITAR, or International Traffic in Arms Regulations - with respect to China's rocket adds around six percent to the cost of a telecommunications satellite. That is because these satellites cannot take advantage of U.S. companies whose production lines are active and thus whose unit costs are reduced - in addition to the fact companies producing in U.S. dollars have an advantage over euro-based companies like Thales Alenia Space.
Officials said that, as a general rule, the satellite price increase is more than offset by the reduced cost of a Chinese rocket compared to European, Russian or American commercial launch vehicles.
Even so, they said they have no intention of moving toward what they refer to as a fully "ITAR-free" product line. Such a move would help reduce the cost of ITAR-free satellites by increasing the production volume, but would run the risk of not being able to keep up with market demand because ITAR-free satellites rely on a supply chain that would have difficulty increasing throughput in the short term, Thales Alenia Space officials said.
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