CAUSE OF SATELLITE BLAST IN CHINA UP IN AIR 6-MONTH PROBE IS INCONCLUSIVE

CAUSE OF SATELLITE BLAST IN CHINA UP IN AIR 6-MONTH PROBE IS INCONCLUSIVE

Six months of investigation into the loss of an American satellite insured for $160 million failed to pinpoint a cause for its destruction seconds after the launch in southwestern China, officials said Wednesday.

A joint statement from Hughes Space & Communications International Inc. and China's Great Wall Industry Corp. agrees that wind played a part. Beyond that, all is clouded in uncertainty.The Jan. 26 explosion destroyed a Long March 2E rocket and the Apstar-II satellite build by Hughes, a unit of General Motors Corp. The blast and fire killed six people on the ground and injured a score more.

A Hong Kong newspaper owned by China was quick to say the satellite was at fault; some Chinese papers alleged deliberate sabotage by Hughes. The U.S. company dismissed that as "beyond the realms of the credible," and reiterates in the joint report its view that the satellite was not to blame.

Hughes says its investigators and Chinese scientists differ on the causes, but agree high winds were ultimately to blame.

"Chinese engineers leaned toward the conclusion that high winds affected the booster-to-spacecraft interface," the statement said.

"Hughes believes that the most probable cause of the accident was that high winds aloft and wind shear caused a premature opening of the rocket fairing," a device to cut drag during liftoff.

Chinese scientists were quoted in Hong Kong as saying excessive vibration in the link between the rocket and the satellite caused the explosion, or alternatively that the fuel exploded as a direct result of turbulence.

Hughes said the opening of the fairing and resulting buildup of pressure crushed the spacecraft and caused the fire.

China Great Wall, which makes the Long March range of rockets China uses for commercial launches, and Hughes "reaffirm their long-term and friendly cooperation and are determined to continue with confidence to expand the cooperation in areas of mutual business interests," the report said.

That marks a decided change from the acrimony that attended the similar loss in 1992 of a Hughes-made satellite owned by Australia's Optus Communications Ltd. Hughes and Great Wall traded barbs for months before agreeing to disagree on what went wrong.

Hong Kong's APT Satellite Co. , owner of Apstar-II, has chosen the Space Systems/Loral unit of New York-based Loral Corp. to supply a replacement, also to be launched by a Chinese rocket. Officials wouldn't confirm industry reports that it will be put up in January.

The Hong Kong firm is a consortium backed largely by Chinese money. Apstar- II was meant to carry programs for CNN, ESPN, Home Box Office, the Discovery channel and Hong Kong's TVB.