Russia loses contact with Angolan satellite in fresh embarrassment for space industry

A Zenit rocket carrying Angosat-1, the first national telecoms satellite for Angola, lifting off from the launch pad at the Russian-leased Baikonur cosmodrome.
A Zenit rocket carrying Angosat-1, the first national telecoms satellite for Angola, lifting off from the launch pad at the Russian-leased Baikonur cosmodrome. PHOTO: AFP

MOSCOW (AFP, REUTERS) - Russia has lost contact with Angola's first national telecoms satellite, launched from the Baikonur space pad, its maker said on Wednesday (Dec 27) in a fresh embarrassment for Moscow's once proud space industry.

The incident involving the Russian-made Angosat-1 followed a similar one in November when Russia lost contact with a weather satellite launched from a new cosmodrome in the country's far east.

Energia, Russia's top spacecraft-maker, which produced the satellite for Angola, said it had reached orbit and established communication according to plan, but "after a while, it had stopped sending telemetry" data.

"Energia specialists are analysing telemetry at their disposal," the company said in a statement, adding it was working to re-establish contact.

The reason for the loss of contact was not given.

Earlier on Wednesday a source in the space industry said that contact with the satellite had "temporarily" been lost. The source called it a "rather common situation".

Energia said similar incidents had happened before with satellites in other countries, including the United States and Kazakhstan.

In 2006, Nasa re-established communication with a satellite nearly two years after losing contact with the spacecraft.

Sources at the Angolan space agency said that it would be premature to comment on the apparent communication breakdown.

"It's correct that after the launch there was a (communications) disconnect," Mr Da Costa N'ganga, marketing director at Infrasat, a company in Angola overseeing the satellite project, said.

"The nature of the technology means that we will need to wait 24 hours to know for sure what has happened," he added.

The satellite - financed by a loan from Russia - was meant to boost telecommunications in one of Africa's top oil producers.

Russia and Angola agreed to pursue the approximately US$280 million (S$375.06 million) project - which includes the satellite, its launch, and on-ground infrastructure in a suburb of the capital Luanda - in 2009.

The funding for the project was agreed in 2009, during a visit to Angola by Mr Dmitry Medvedev, Russian president at the time.

The satellite was produced by Energia using a "number of innovative solutions", the Russian space agency said.

The satellite was designed for a 15-year mission to boost satellite communications, Internet access and radio and TV services.

Around 50 Angolan aerospace engineers trained around the globe were meant to oversee the functioning of the satellite from a control centre built near Luanda.

The Zenit-2SB rocket carrying Angosat to orbit was supplied by Ukrainian maker Yuzhmash.

That made the launch a rare joint project between Russia and Ukraine, after Russia annexed Ukraine's Crimea peninsula in 2014.

Russia initially wanted to use its new Angara rocket to launch the satellite, but opted for the Zenit rocket. The launch had been pushed back several times due to delays.

"It is too early to bury the satellite," said space expert Vitaly Yegorov.

"But the incident with Angosat is bad because Angola is a new client," he added, noting that Russia was hoping for more such contracts with developing countries.

"They had waited for this launch for many years," he said, referring to Angola. "This case may affect other developing countries interested in working with Russia."

Mr Yegorov suggested that the satellite might have been damaged due to long storage on Earth.

In late November, Russia lost contact with its Meteor-M weather satellite after its launch from the new Vostochny cosmodrome in the far east - only the second such launch from the new spaceport.

Apart from the weather satellite, the rocket carried 18 payloads from institutions and companies in Canada, the United States, Japan, Germany, Sweden and Norway.

In October, Russia successfully launched from the northern cosmodrome of Plesetsk a European satellite dedicated to monitoring the Earth's atmosphere.

Sending the first man into space in 1961 and launching the first sputnik satellite four years earlier are among key accomplishments of the Soviet space programme and remain a major source of national pride in Russia.

Meanwhile, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin said on Wednesday the failed launch of a 2.6 billion-rouble (S$60.21 million) satellite last month was due to an embarrassing programming error.

Speaking to Rossiya 24 state TV channel, Mr Rogozin said the failure had been caused by human error.

The rocket carrying the satellites had been programmed with the wrong coordinates, he said, saying it had been given bearings for take-off from a different cosmodrome - Baikonur - which Moscow leases from Kazakhstan.

"The rocket was really programmed as if it was taking off from Baikonur," said Mr Rogozin. "They didn't get the coordinates right."