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Faulty rocket leaves Turks lost for words

TURKEY'S aim of uniting the Turkic nations received another setback when the French Ariane rocket failed to launch its first satellite.

Turksat 1A was to have served Turkey, central Europe and central Asia, providing 22 television channels and radio, as well as for telephone, telex and other such transmissions. It also was destined for military use. It would have covered the main areas of Turkic-speakers - 2 million in Europe, 60 million in Turkey and 50 million in the Caucasus and Central Asia.

Following Ariane's failure on Monday to launch Turksat 1A and another communications satellite, insurance companies in Europe and the United States are facing the biggest space-related loss in their history. The satellites were worth a total of dollars 350 (pounds 235m). About dollars 30m had been privately insured by the launch company, Arianespace, while the rest of the losses will be sustained by Lloyd's and insurers in France, Germany, Italy and the US. Jean Fournier, of the brokers Faugere et Jutheau, who handled the business, said: 'Virtually everyone was in on this deal. This launch was the largest ever insured.'

In Arianespace's 63rd launch, the Ariane 4 rocket took off on schedule from the Kourou space centre, French Guiana. The third-stage engines fired six minutes later but shut down at an altitude of 200km (124 miles); the rocket plunged into the Atlantic.

Turksat was just one of the projects started by Turkey to improve relations between speakers of Turkic languages since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Ariane's failure was an especially bitter blow. Many of Turkey's projects for a kind of Turkic commonwealth have proved hard to realise, although airlines, businessmen and schools have been slowly building links.

The most pro-Turkish government, in Azerbaijan, was ousted last year. Resurgent Russian nationalism is restricting the new republics' freedom of action. A summit of Turkic states due to be held last weekend was postponed because of bad organisation and differences between the states themselves.

Mehmet Kostepen, Turkey's Communications Minister wept as he watched the abortive launch in French Guiana. But he insisted all was not lost: another Turkish satellite is to be launched in July.

This week's mishap was the sixth failure for the European commercial satellite-launch company since its first lift-off on 24 December 1979. Its last failure was four years ago, on 23 February 1990. Arianespace has dominated the world's commercial space lift-offs, chalking up more than 50 per cent of orders.

Despite the setback, Mr Fournier said Arianespace launches had been good business for the insurance industry: premium income since the failure of February 1990 had exceeded dollars 800m, which would still leave insurers with a healthy profit even after this week's losses had been accounted for.

Last year Arianespace had a turnover of nearly 5bn French francs (pounds 580m); it has orders for 35 more launches, worth 15bn francs. However, the failure comes at an unfortunate moment: next week the Japanese national space agency is to launch its first H-II rocket, intended as a direct competitor to Ariane.

Experts are focusing on the possibility that Monday's disaster was caused by a breakdown in the turbo-pump delivering liquid oxygen to the third-stage engines.

The third stage, which was manufactured by the French company Aerospatiale, is fuelled by liquid hydrogen and oxygen. 'No conclusion has yet been reached. The experts continue to study the problem. But their investigation is directed at this hypothesis - that is to say, the stopping of the turbo-pump after 90 seconds of operation,' one source said.

Eutelsat, the other orbiter that was lost on Monday, was the latest in a series of seven European satellites used for television, telephone and other services on the European continent.

(Photograph omitted)