On March 31, at 08:22 local time, Kazakhstan lost contact with its KazSat-2 satellite, which provides communications services for local broadcasters and Internet companies.
The national space agency, KazCosmos, said in a statement that the satellite was used by 13 telecommunications and broadcasting operators. For a nerve-wracking seven hours, all data previously being handled by the satellite was rerouted to KazSat-3.
Officials have not revealed what caused the malfunction. But this development is refocusing attention on Kazakhstan’s space program, and seems certain to cause renewed unease over the decision by KazCosmos to stick by its choice of Russia’s Khrunichev Center to develop KazSat-2, following the grim fate of KazSat-1.
Renting slots on foreign satellites is a costly proposition for Kazakhstan’s telecommunications providers and broadcasters, so efforts to develop domestic capabilities, first announced in the mid-2000s, were broadly welcomed.
But the history of these efforts has not been an altogether happy one.
In 2005, then-Prime Minister Daniyal Akhmetov laid out his government’s stall by announcing that Kazakhstan would spend $345 million developing its space program, which he said would include the launch of the country’s first satellite.
The ambition was not to compete with international satellite service providers, but to give telecommunications companies a regional and likely less costly alternative. With the euphoria of the oil boom at its peak, officials were falling over themselves to make grand predictions.
In December 2005, KazCosmos chairman Serik Turzhanov predicted that Kazakhstan would, in cooperation with Russia, have four of its satellites in orbit by 2012. “In total, over two or three years, our company will invest around $400 million in the space industry,” Turzhanov said. “The investment base — from the state, as well as from the private sector — will within three years reach around $3 billion.”
The culmination of all that bluster was KazSat-1.
KazSat-1 was launched from the Baikour cosmodrome on June 18, 2006 — around six months later than originally forecast, hoisted into orbit by a Russian-made Proton rocket. Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin watched from a viewing platform as the powerful rocket lit up the pre-dawn sky.
All was well until June 2008, when KazCosmos declared that they had lost contact with their maiden satellite, which was built by Khrunichev and developed jointly with French-Italian aerospace manufacturer Thales Alenia Space. The loss of signal knocked TV stations off air. Those that could afford to do so, assumed the cost of switching to foreign satellites; others simply shut down.
KazSat-1 was designed to have an operational life of just over 12 years.
That failure notwithstanding, Kazakhstan continued — despite some muted grumbling — to put its faith in Khrunichev and committed to KazSat-2. In mid-2009, then-Prime Minister Karim Masimov demanded intensified quality control from the Moscow-based manufacturer for what would become Kazakhstan’s second satellite.
Again, the project was beset by delays. An initial December 2010 launch date was missed. The revised appointment for a March 2011 launch also came and went. Finally, on July 16, 2011, a Proton rocket carried KazSat-2 into orbit. Like its doomed predecessor, the satellite is intended to operate for more than 12 years.
Other than some minor glitches, KazSat-2 has proven reliable so far. In June 2015, intense solar activity was cited as a reason for the transponders going offline. By the next day, however, all was back to normal.
KazCosmos no doubt will pray this latest hiccup is definitively resolved, although there is also KazSat-3. For that platform, which was launched into orbit in April 2014, Astana turned to a satellite builder based outside the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk, called ISS-Reshetnev.
KazSat-3 was hailed as the most powerful yet, and is intended to cope with the ever-intensifying demand for high-volume transmissions from local television and telecommunications operators. The burden on KazSat-3 has been intensified by the gradual switchover from analogue TV to digital.
In September, the president of the Republican Center for Space Communications, Viktor Lefter, announced that the KazSat fleet had, over a five-year span, saved Kazakhstan a combined 18 billion tenge ($57.5 million). “That is how much Kazakhstanis would have paid for the services of foreign satellites if we did not have our own communications and broadcast system. Now, this money is in our economy,” Lefter said.
Since KazSat-3 alone reportedly set the country back $148 million, it is uncertain whether it is telecommunications companies or the taxpayers that have really saved money.
In July 2016, Information Minister Dauren Abayev said that the national broadcast satellite provider, Otau TV, would be ditching its previous reliance on foreign-owned platform Intelsat-904, and instead relying wholly on KazSat-3. “The transfer of the network from a foreign satellite to a domestic one is a technical and political necessity,” he said.
Abayev’s reference to politics is telling and indicates that when the financial resources are forthcoming, regional space powers are eager to pursue as much sovereign control as possible over their communications.
Neighboring Turkmenistan is another case in point. From the very outset, Ashgabat spurned Russia and relied instead on Thales Alenia Space to develop its own telecommunications satellite, which was blasted into orbit in 2015 on a SpaceX craft.
In January, the Turkmen government announced it is now preparing for the imminent launch of a second satellite. According to publicly available information, that satellite is to be used for remote earth sensing — possibly, although this has not been publicly stated, in connection to the country’s economically vital energy industry.