May 20, 2009
The Mystery of the Venezuelan SatelliteBy Adolfo Fabregat
Venezuela's "socialist satellite" is mostly a no-show when it comes to television broadcasts. Bad news for Hugo Chavez, and worse news for the Chinese, whose space program supplied it.
During the May 10th broadcast of his weekly show Aló Presidente, Hugo Chávez made a number of references to the show being broadcast via the "Satélite Simón Bolivar." Superimposed on the screens at home, Venezuelans saw the graphic "En Vivo Satélite Simón Bolivar".
But there was one problem; satellite watchers in Venezuela and Brazil noticed that the satellite was not broadcasting anything, let alone Aló Presidente. Where were the ground stations getting their signal from? A similar situation happened in the broadcast of the show the week before, May 3rd, so this time the watchers were ready. They scanned the neighbor satellite NSS806, the one normally used by most Venezuelan TV Stations, and there it was, the show was being broadcast the same way it had most Sundays for the last 10 years. The U$400 million satellite known in technical circles as VENESAT-1was a no-show as it has been since its launch by China October 29th 2008.
Satellite watchers, in what is known as the FTA Community (Free To Air or unencrypted broadcasts), is a fast growing group of amateurs scanning the geo synchronous satellites visible above their horizon, excited to find such varied programming as soccer games from Argentina, news from Iran or bullfights from Spain, in a way reminiscent of police scanners or ham radio operators.
The FTA Community gathers in internet forums mostly organized around the geographical areas of the satellites they can receive, to share information about what satellites may be broadcasting and to help each other troubleshoot reception problems.
It is in these forums that questions about the satellite operation began to emerge. One can follow a history of excitement early on when the VENESAT-1went live back in January to disappointment currently with the lack of any regularly available programming. Because the VENESAT-1 is not broadcasting with any regularity or quality, there isn't much commentary. Most of what is posted is about the, somewhat incomprehensibly, the only regularly schedule broadcast from the satellite: a Brazilian network on a backup transponder with no audio. Any broadcasts from Venezuelan networks are usually short, with pixilated images and of very low quality. Here is a sample of the comments:
But no one has been more dedicated to following the operation of VENESAT-1 as Venezuela's own Juan Perdomo Guerrero (email) who has been documenting his findings in a forum in the very popular Noticiero Digital newsite/forum. His post regarding the operation-condition of VENESAT-1 has become the most viewed ever, with over 350 thousands views, and the most commented with over 800 comments in little over 5 months.
Mr. Perdomo has recently edited the first page of the post to reflect a summary of all his findings because a large number, if not the majority, of the 800+ comments were insults directed at Mr. Perdomo from Chávez supporters who make a very political response to what is in essence a technical question, the satellite either works or it doesn't.
Unquestionably there is a political dimension to the condition of the satellite and that was made by Mr. Chávez and members of his administration who, like then Minister of Science and Technology Nuris Orihuela declared to the most influential Spanish newspaper, El País, that VENESAT-1is "a socialist satellite" , or as reported in Venezuela's state news agency ABN, the satellite will "serve for the construction of socialism" or that it proves the superiority of the socialist revolution as in this speech by Chávez himself and reported in his own TeleSur network:
The satellite either works or it doesn't.
For the average TV viewer at home it does not matter one bit whether the image is coming from a satellite or not, much less what specific satellite is being used. With now thousands of satellites in orbit and hundreds being launched every year, satellite failures no longer command front page news. But in the growing and competitive satellite industry, involving billion dollar investments in launch services, manufacturing services and ground equipment, it is a big deal to know if satellites have operational difficulties. So it is highly significant that no one in the industry has detected and reported problems with VENESAT's condition. There is a lot circumstantial evidence that the VENESAT-1 is not where it should be at this stage of it operational life.
A depreciating asset.
Beyond all the grand "socialist" objectives planned for VENESAT-1, one thing is certain, a satellite is a depreciating asset.
According to Minister Orihuela, described in this document of the Ministry of Science and Technology as also the Presidenta del Centro Espacial Venezolano, VENESAT-1 has a planned life of 12-15 years (180 months on the outside) and required an investment of U$240 million in manufacture and launch -- paid to China Great Wall Industry Corp. and another U$150 million in infrastructure like technical training and ground equipment in Venezuela.
Every month the VENESAT-1 depreciates some U$2.5 million, so one would expect that the proprietors of the satellite, the Venezuelan government, would want to make as productive use of those 180 months as possible. Ms. Orihuela herself in the previously linked interview describes the ongoing costs of Venezuela satellite for 24 state TV stations, 24 state radios, infocenters and national libraries as exceedingly high. Yet seven months after its launch very little visible use of the satellite has been detected, except for the TV graphics every time Mr. Chávez is on TV. An interesting comparison can be made with the satellite Star One C2, launched for Brazil last year by the European Space Agency on April 18th. By June 2nd, only six weeks after its launch, the Star One C2 was fully operational to the point that it totally replaced the ageing BrasilSatB4 in "the task of broadcasting the main Brazilian TV network channels".
LyngSat.com is an excellent Scandinavian operation that collects information from FTA satellite watchers around the world about what they find being broadcast in orbiting satellites in its different transponders and frequencies. It operates much like a Wikipedia but for FTA aficionados. In the case of VENESAT-1, lyngsat reports three TV stations, a frequency from the Ministry of Education and a couple of feeds. Even assuming that these were regularly produced broadcasts and not FTA reports intended to manipulate the public information, it is fair to say that is a very weak grid compared to dozens of stations in the aforementioned Star One C2 launched only a few months earlier.
To reinforce the point, assuming the lyngsat information about the VENESAT-1 is accurate, lyngsat still reports most Venezuelan TV stations broadcasting through NSS806.
The promises of VENESAT
The business site goliath.excnext.com links to a press release (full article by registration only) from CANTV, the state owned telephone, television and internet provider with the following digest:
The article is dated January 1st. As far as anyone knows none of these services are in currently in operation.
On January 7th 2009, CANTV published in its website (still there as of this writing) this report about the upcoming (January 10th) transfer of control of the VENESAT-1from Chinese technicians to Venezuelan.
The most striking aspect of the report is that the two officials mentioned and pictured , Minister of Science and Technology Nuris Orihuela and Minister of Telecomunications and Information Socorro Hernández have both been relieved of their duties, Ms Orihuela on April 9th and Ms Hernández just last week, May 13th
Except for the linked article, the CANTV website appears to have been purged of any references to the VENESAT.
Commenting on the recent changes of personnel within the administration, the widely popular and respected Venezuelan web site The Devil's Excrement on May 15th described VENESAT-1as "...the worthless Chinese satellite, ..."
What about Uruguay?
Because Venezuela's assigned orbital slot could not reach as many potential users as he wanted, Chávez negotiated with Uruguay, whose assigned slot at 78 degrees west could provide coverage from the Eastern US all the way down to the top portion of Argentina, to cede its slot in exchange for 10% of the available use of the satellite.
The agreement, signed during a meeting of Mercosur countries in Montevideo in December 2005, requires Venezuela to pay all the costs related to the transfer of property of the orbital slot with the International Telecommunications Union and to pay for all the infrastructure costs in Uruguay including a ground station in the town of Manga, in the outskirts of Montevideo, as well as the training of technical operators.
For Uruguay, that otherwise could not afford to make use of its orbital slot, the deal seemed to make sense, as it could bring significant savings in satellite services. The deal was approved by Uruguay's Congress, but not without a number of voices of concern from members of the opposition parties that did not fully trust Chávez would use the satellite solely for the advertised intended purposes.
Four years after the agreement was signed and seven months after the satellite was launched there is nothing to show for in Uruguay and not even significant mentions of the satellite in the press.
There was however, this report from El Observador on May 10th under the curious headline "Uruguay will start to utilize its satellite by the end of the year", while at the same time reporting that the initiation of the U$500 thousand ground station could not be celebrated "con bombos y platillos" (fanfare) during Chávez visit to the region on May 15th because the work is "delayed", although no reason is given as to why or for how long. Even more intriguing the article alludes to the imminent visit to Montevideo of Minister Socorro Hernández to begin the process, but if there is one thing we can really be certain of is that Socorro Hernández will not be visiting Montevideo any time soon.
The checkered history of the DFH4
VENESAT-1 was launched on October 29th 2008; fourteen days later, November 12th, China Great Wall Industry Corp. confirmed that the NIGCOMSAT-1, a satellite that shared the same core technology known as DongFangHong-4 (DFH4) with VENESAT-1 and launched 18 months earlier on behalf of the government of Nigeria, was completely lost.
VENESAT-1 and NIGCOMSAT-1 also share the same DFH4 technology with SINOSAT-2, launched in 2006, ostensibly to provide additional communications capabilities for the 2008 Peking Olympics. The SINOSAT-2 was confirmed totally lost within a couple of weeks after its launch. Gunther's Space Page reports of the 10 launched or planned DFH4 based satellites, nine were either lost, cancelled or delayed with VENESAT accounting for the tenth.
Satellite journalist Peter J. Brown concludes, in this thorough and exhaustive analysis of the impact of the loss of NIGCOMSAT to the Chinese satellite industry, if the loss of the NIGCOMSAT-1 had occurred a couple of weeks earlier, the launch of the VENESAT-1 would most likely had been postponed.
Both lost satellites appeared to have suffered electrical problems caused by failed or damaged solar arrays and this is what Mr. Perdomo, who has been monitoring and recording his findings, thinks also has happened to VENESAT. In an email from Venezuela he shares this opinion:
How will this story unfold?
No one wants to see a communications satellite that could provide so many beneficial services fail. On the other hand it is fair to say that so far VENESAT-1 has been a less than stellar performer and the track record of the DFH4-based satellites does not inspire much confidence that it will improve in the future.
If there were absolutely no problems with the satellite, why it is taking so long to come up to speed?
But if there are problems, the implications for both the Chinese and Venezuelan governments are immense.
For Mr. Chávez the humiliation that the object that represents the superiority of his revolution failed is going to be a hard pill to swallow. For the Chinese, the stakes are even higher: the reputation of their satellite program, a commercial enterprise with national security implications.