Monday, April 28, 2008
India Races Ahead in Space
"The mission was perfect," said G Madhavan Nair, chairman of the state-run Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO). Mr. Nair was celebrating the latest successful launch by India of a mission with 10 satellites from the Sriharikota space center off India's east coast. With its headquarters in Bangalore, the ISRO employs approximately 20,000 people, with a budget of around US$815 million. Its mandate is the development of technologies related to space and their application to India's development. In addition to domestic payloads, it offers international launch services. ISRO currently launches satellites using the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle and the GSLV for geostationary satellites.
This latest success by ISRO makes India a serious contender in the fast growing $2.5B commercial satellite launch business expected to grow rapidly over the next several years. The BBC is reporting that the rocket carried an Indian mini satellite to gather technological data which will be available for sale, and eight tiny research satellites belonging to research facilities in Canada, Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands. India started its space program in 1963, and has since designed, built and launched its own satellites into space.
Last year, India put an Italian satellite into orbit for a fee of $11m. In January, India successfully launched an Israeli spy satellite into orbit, according to the BBC. The Israeli satellite launch drew strong protest from Iran amidst growing and multi-dimensional India-Israel collaboration. Israeli arms sales to India in 2006 were $1.5 billion, roughly the same as in each of the preceding three years as well. This from Israel’s total arms sales of $4.2 billion in 2006; the India market comprised more than one-third. A report by the Brookings Institution, a pro-Israeli US Think Tank, welcomed this collaboration and said, "The Israeli-Indian connection in commercial military and space intelligence fields is good for both countries and for the United States. In less than two decades since diplomatic ties were upgraded, New Delhi and Jerusalem have come a long way. Camp David was a pivotal moment on the way. The cooperation between Israel and India, with U.S. blessing, provides important security to two democratic countries in a very unstable part of the world."
India's own satellite named Technology Experiment Satellite (TES), which can be used as a spy satellite, has been beaming down what space officials call "excellent pictures". TES, launched in October 2001 from the Sriharikota launch pad, is a precursor for the launch of fully operational spy satellites. Indian Defense Minister has been touting India's satellite-based Military Surveillance and Reconnaissance System that was scheduled to become operational by 2007 allowing it to keep watch on developments in its neighborhood, including Pakistan and China. It has, however, been delayed with no new dates announced.
Beyond the Indian commercial ambitions, this milestone for India represents a strategic capability as an emerging economic and military power on the world stage. This is also a great comeback for ISRO about two years after a launch in 2006 had to be destroyed less than a minute after lift off when it veered from its path.
The Pakistan Space Agency or Space and Upper Atmosphere Research Commission (SUPARCO), the equivalent of ISRO in India, is the Pakistani state-run space agency responsible for Pakistan's space program. It was formed in September 1961 by the order of President Ayub Khan on the advice of Professor Dr Abdus Salam, Nobel Laureate, who was also made its founding director. The headquarters of SUPARCO is located in Islamabad, however with the development of Sonmiani it is expected that the new headquarters will be moved in the near future. The agency also has offices in Lahore and at Karachi (an engineering installation). SUPARCO has no launch capability of its own. It has relied on Chinese and Russian space agencies to launch its satellites Badr-1 and Badr-2.
SUPARCO saw major cuts in its budget in the 1980s and 1990s. Last year, its annual budget was a modest $6m. In fact, Pakistan had no communication satellites in space until 2003. The urgency to place its first satellite in a geo-stationary orbit was keenly felt in the middle of 2003, by which time Pakistan had already lost four of its five allotted space slots. The five slots were allotted to Pakistan by ITU (International Telecommunication Union) back in 1984, but the country failed to launch any satellite till 1995. That year Pakistan again applied for and received the five slots, but once again the government failed to get a satellite into orbit, losing four of it slots in the process. According to officials, if Pakistan had failed to launch its satellite by April 19, 2003, the country would have lost its fifth and last 38-degree east slot when the availability of these space slots is getting difficult every day.
Pakistan’s former Science and Technology Minister, Dr. Atta-ur Rehman said retention of the slot was important from commercial and strategic points of view as it would assure retention of a foothold in space. Air Vice Marshall Azhar Maud, Chairman NTC, said that a geo stationary satellite could be used to secure defence communication, act as a lookout for a missile attack and detect any nuclear detonation or explosion. M Nasim Shah of the Space and Upper Atmosphere Research Commission(SUPARCO) said that the technology is vital for making the nuclear command and control mechanisms “credible”.
Recognizing that it is significantly lagging behind Indian Space program, President Pervez Musharraf has outlined his vision for SUPARCO by laying down a clearly defined agenda for the national space agency. Revitalization, restructuring, reorientation and modernization of SUPARCO are the main objectives outlined by President Musharraf. SUPARCO is to be brought at par with other successful space agencies of the world. Specific objectives include research and development of communication satellites, remote sensing satellites and satellite launch vehicles, with the objective of bringing rapid growth and socio-economic development in the fields of education, information technology, communications, agriculture sector, mineral excavation and atmospheric sciences. As an established and well recognized nuclear and missile power the next logical frontier for Pakistan is space. President Musharraf had made it clear that Pakistan would need to catch up to the world space leaders and make up for lost time and neglect in the past.
In 2001, Pakistan was reportedly in the process of developing its own Satellite Launch Vehicle (SLV). Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan, considered the father of Pakistan's nuclear program, said in March 2001 that Pakistani scientists were in the process of building the country's first SLV and that the project had been assigned to SUPARCO. According to Dr. Abdul Majid, chairman of SUPARCO, Pakistan envisaged a low-cost SLV in order to launch lightweight satellites into low-earth orbits. Dr. Khan also cited the fact that India had made rapid strides in the fields of SLV and satellite manufacture as another motivation for developing an indigenous launch capability. According to an Islamabad news source, the SLV would be derived from an already available missile launching system, which may be an indication that technologies acquired for the ballistic missile program would eventually be used to develop an SLV. All the experiments necessary to ready the SLV for a complete flight test have not been completed, although Pakistani scientists have tested three of the four stages. The nuclear proliferation allegations and events leading up to the Dr. A.Q. Khan's fall from grace and subsequent house arrest have clearly been a setback for Pakistan's space efforts.
India's success in space is likely to be seen in Pakistan as a threat, or at least a major challenge that they must respond to. Pakistan has a lot of catching up to do to try and reduce the gap between the space capabilities of the two nuclear-armed rivals in South Asia.
Just as Russia's Sputnik launch on October 4, 1957, spurred the Americans to respond with a comprehensive effort in space technology, the Indian success yesterday has the potential to serve as a wake-up call for Pakistanis to renew their efforts and focus on science and technology education, innovation and research to become competitive with India in space. Only time will tell if Pakistanis are really up to this challenge.
1. News Agency Reports
2. BBC News
3. Wikipedia entries on ISRO, SUPRACO
4. CNS-Current and Future Space Security
Pakistan Space Program
Pakistan's Space Capabilities
SUPARCO Presentation at Berlin, Germany