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Pakistan Set to revive its space programme

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By Fawad Khan 

The international print, electronic and social media, especially in India, has given wide coverage to an apparently unannounced but “unusual development” in the region under which Pakistan is said to be all set to upgrade and advance its indigenous space programme, which previously had “limited quality advancements” as compared to that of its arch rival India who has of late been engaged in active cooperation with the United States and other countries in order to enhance and upgrade its satellite programme.

In the recently announced annual federal budget, the Pakistan government allocated a reasonable funding for the current fiscal, which would be utilized to make the country’s space programme “robust and state-of-the-art” as part of Vision 2040. Once completed successfully, Pakistan will likely come at par in the space and satellite development technology with India and other countries. Already, Pakistani scientists have achieved successes in the country’s indigenously developed nuclear and missiles programmes.

The news of Pakistan’s likely launch of space programme plan has been taken by surprise by the adversary as it propagates that the programme is primarily aimed at keeping an eye on the Indian side, besides serving other purposes like controlling the web, monitoring weather systems and using the GPS. The Pakistani public, civil society and intelligentsia have expressed great satisfaction over the planned space programme which they say is the need of hour, not only for the defence point of view but also due to the growing demand from the civil communications, including the GPS, mobile telephony and the internet as well as due to changing scenario in the region. India has already made a headway towards advancement of its space programme, thus creating security imbalance in the region.

Pakistan too has entered a new era of advancement after its most successful, sophisticated and robust nuclear deterrent and missile system programmes. Now with the scheduled launching of space programme, Pakistan will be able to reduce its dependence on foreign satellites which it needed to use for civil and military purposes. Pakistan had earlier been getting help mainly from China and the US; its own Badar-I and Badar-II launches had partially been successful. Now with the new indigenous space programme, Pakistan plans to initiate several projects to develop and enhance its own self-reliance capacity while reducing the dependence on foreign satellites.

The budget for Pakistan’s Suparco (Space and Upper Atmosphere Research Organisation) for the upcoming fiscal year 2018-2019 has been set as Rs 4.70 billion, which includes Rs 2.55 billion for three new projects. Suparco has regularly been conducting activities each year to increase awareness of space technology and to promote its peaceful usage amongst the students as well as the masses in Pakistan since 2005. The budget allocation includes funding of Rs 1.35 billion for Pakistan Multi-Mission Satellite (PakSat-MM1). Likewise, the country is planning to establish various Space Centres for example in cities like Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad with the allocation of Rs 1 billion. Another project, third in the row, which is on cards, is establishment of Space Application Research Centre at Karachi with the budget of Rs 200 million in the year 2018-2019. The total cost of PakSat-MM1 is said to be Rs 27.57 billion and the cost of the space centres is Rs 26.91 billion.

For Pakistan space exploration is amongst the most fascinating ventures of modern times. It contributes to investigation of physical conditions in space, on stars, planets, and other celestial bodies through the use of artificial satellites and space probes carried onboard spacecraft beyond Earth’s atmosphere. Space-based communication systems offer fast and affordable means of providing services like tele-education, telemedicine, mobile telephony and television to remote areas. The diversity and cultural exchanges of Pakistan’s populations can be better served by television broadcasting via satellites. Besides, communication satellites provide an important and essential communication medium to Pakistan’s armed forces. Remote sensing satellites have great potential in contributing to better land management, food security, disaster management, urban planning, mineral exploration, crop yield forecasting, water management, etc. Weather has a profound effect on life. Weather satellites provide forecasts on temperature, precipitation, cloudiness and winds have both civilian and military applications.

For a water-stressed country like Pakistan, the economy of which is largely agrarian, climate and weather and their effect on availability of water are crucial factors. Weather forecasts and warnings are also important because they protect life and property. Forecasts about temperature and precipitation are also needed for agricultural applications. Several Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS) are either in operation or under development. These provide free and reliable positioning, navigation, and timing services on a continuous worldwide basis. Some of the applications include land surveying, map-making, tracking and surveillance scientific study of earthquakes, disaster relief and emergency services in life-saving missions. Farmers, surveyors, geologists and many others perform their work more efficiently, safely, economically, and accurately using GPS signals.

Space and Upper Atmosphere Research Organisation (Suparco) was launched to strive to achieve self-reliance in space technology and applications for national security, economy and society. Space Sciences and Research Wing of Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC) was established in 1961. Later it was renamed and placed under the leadership of Professor Abdus Salam as Chairman and Dr I H Usmani as Vice Chairman. In 1984, the Government of Pakistan approved the long-term Space Science and Technology Development Programme, which comprised four components: establishment of ground stations and ancillary facilities for reception and use of scientific data including imagery of the earth for natural resources survey, and reception and study of Very Low and High Frequency communications signals; establishment of satellite tracking facilities such as optical radar and laser tracking stations; launching of multi-purpose satellites for point-to-point telecommunications, TV broadcasting and scientific observations; and development of satellites and complete satellite launch vehicles.

Suparco launched its first sounding rocket Rehbar-1 for upper atmosphere research in 1961 becoming the third nation in Asia and the tenth in the world to launch such a rocket. It later developed sounding rockets indigenously. It also developed two experimental satellites Badr-1 and Badr-B which were launched in 1990 and 2001 respectively. Afterwards, work was undertaken on development of prototype communication and remote-sensing satellites. The knowledge gained and the skills developed through these projects played an important role in Suparco’s contribution to the development of Paksat-1R communication satellite in collaboration with China. The satellite was successfully launched on August 12, 2011 from Xichang Satellite Launch Centre in China. Pakistan now plans to develop a remote sensing satellite as part of its vision 2040, which has recently been approved by the government.

Space-based assets for Pakistan too have become indispensable to modern life whether it is live telecast of events across the world or beyond, the ubiquitous Internet, the telecommunications revolution, satellite weather forecasting, mapping, mineral exploration, water resource management, disaster mitigation, national security or hundreds of other applications, life without these would now be quite difficult, to say the least. One hopes that under the new programme and reasonable allocation of budgets in the years to come, Pakistan will be able to take lead in advancement of space technology, like its missiles programme as well as nuclear technology.

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