Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Sky Dreams


The recent news that Nepal is examining the feasibility of launching our first geostationary satellite in orbital space comes as a pleasant diversion from the headlines incessantly focusing on our terrestrial, low-life politics. It has taken our government almost 30 years to look up above since the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) first allocated an orbital slot for Nepal in 1984.

This news of our orbital ambition has generated widespread publicity at home but it also spread abroad quickly, with the Chinese wire Xinhua reporting it in detail (“Committee set up to study feasibility of launching Nepal’s own satellite,” May 5). The story is entirely focused on highlighting the efforts of the feasibility team. It makes two fringe references to China, one concerning the possibility of leasing Nepal’s satellite partly to the northern or southern neighbor for commercial purpose, and another describing China (and some other nations) as countries that already have satellites.

A day later, India’s The Hindu newspaper reported the story (“Nepal may turn to China for satellite plan,” May 6), citing the Xinhua story and highlighting China’s involvement as one more example of her edge over India in regional orbital race. The article cites how the Indian Cabinet Committee on Security in March had urged the Indian Space Research Organization “to become more active in responding to neighbors’ needs after reports from the Research & Analysis Wing highlighted how India’s lack of interest in the recent past had enabled China’s fast-expanding success in this field.” Noting that the Chinese company, Great Wall Industry Corporation (GWIC), which has helped several developing nations including Pakistan and Sri Lanka, is interested in helping Nepal launch her satellite, the story also points to a potential commercial gain by China in the proposed satellite project.

Satellite diplomacy
In other words, even in the news of our artificial satellite endeavor, it’s us as a political and economic satellite of our neighbors’ that draws their attention. Both the neighbors are competing in space for national prestige, power and glory, with their eyes set on manned lunar missions within this decade as well as rover missions to Mars. This rivalry reflects in their influence on smaller countries in utilizing their orbital slots allocated by ITU. The likely involvement of the Chinese in Nepal’s satellite aspirations and simmering Indian apprehensions is the latest example.

China launched its first satellite (DFH-1; 1970), about 13 years after Russia’s Sputnik and 12 years following America’s launch of Explorer-1. According to the US-based Union of Concerned Scientists, of the estimated 1,046 operating satellites in orbit today (excluding a couple of thousand more dead satellites as space debris), 107 belong to China. Some 45 countries have their own satellites in orbit. Since its launch of Aryabhata in 1975, India has so far launched 60 satellites. Both China and India have helped many countries around the world to launch their own satellites and they often compete in this area.

China has been supporting Pakistan’s space program for long. The country’s first indigenously developed satellite (Badr-1) was launched in China in 1990. Its first geostationary satellite (Paksat-1) was launched in 1996. In November 2012, China also helped Sri Lanka launch its first satellite, prompting India to approach Sri Lanka. Worried about Chinese advance and concerned about the security and defense implications for the sub-continent, India is now asking Sri Lanka to lease her empty orbital slots. To thwart likely Chinese involvement in the Maldivian satellite project, and to mend ties that had turned frosty following a recent failed deal in infrastructure at Male, the Indian government recently “intervened at the highest levels” (Hindustan Times, April 5) to submit a proposal on manufacturing and launching the island nation’s satellite.

It is not clear if India’s interest in this type of “satellite diplomacy” is entirely motivated by her desire to be “more active in responding to neighbors’ needs” as suggested by RAW, or simply to check China’s fast-expanding success in the region.

Doubts have often been raised over the commercial viability of satellites launched by small, developing countries. The argument is markets in such countries are too small to provide an economic return for the large investment made in satellites. In other words, satellite service is a luxury in such countries.

This was largely true until the rise of satellite broadcasting, explosion of Internet  and expanding use of mobile telephony. Long distance communication across remote places of the country has improved gradually with radio-relay systems and fiber-optic cables. And today, with expanding demands, satellite communication is becoming a necessity and a reality.

Before the information revolution on a global scale, many countries that saw no economic prospects in launching their own satellites leased their allotted orbital slots to other countries. Some smaller countries still do so. For example, the small countries of Tonga and Tuvalu have leased their orbital slots to international parties, generating hundreds of millions of dollars annually. Meanwhile, Bangladesh is soon launching its own satellite and hoping to earn US $3 billion in the next 15 years.

Nepal has spent precious time debating water resources (though not as much as political change) over the years, without any concern for the loss of revenues that could have been generated by leasing our orbital slot, the frequency and location assigned to Nepal for placing a satellite. It’s a scare natural resource up there to be shared or utilized effectively. Thirty years is a long time, and the recent efforts definitely sound like too little too late.

We are used to starting an important task at the eleventh hour, and wishing for an extension or postponement of a deadline. Apparently, this is true in this case too, although ITU constitution urges nations to take into account “the special needs of the developing countries and the geographical situation of particular countries” in the use of orbital slots. To note: If Nepal cannot use the orbital slot by 2015, the deadline suggested by ITU will expire and Nepal will have a difficult time reclaiming its lost slot, Narayan Sanjel, a joint secretary at the Ministry of Information and Communications, who heads the study committee, told Xinhua.

Today, we have a very fast-expanding communication environment, with many commercial entities relying on foreign satellites for their businesses. Nepal currently depends on foreign satellites, and it spends an estimated US $25 million for the services primarily in television broadcasting and weather forecasting. Still, the costs to launch a satellite will far exceed direct economic benefits. The total cost to launch a satellite by Sri Lanka (the third country in South Asia to do so) was US$ 320 million.

With prudent planning and execution, and good salesmanship, Nepal could benefit from owning a satellite of her own. Apart from its commercial value, it will benefit our defense system, helping to directly monitor situations and locations of interest to the security sector. It will help enhance our weather forecasting, which has huge implications for agriculture, tourism industry, aviation and other businesses. Television coverage is still limited to between 50 to 60 percent of households, with the signal of Nepal Television reaching about 72 percent of the country’s population. Having our own satellite will enable access to TV signals even in the remotest parts of the country. Besides, given the growth of the radio sector, Nepal could see a boom in satellite radio too. Above all, the launch of Nepal’s own satellite will be a huge morale booster with far-reaching social-economic implications for a country emerging out of a prolonged period of conflict, and despair.

The study team will have to factor in not only the projected benefits but assess the mode of operation, including nature of partnership between the government and national or foreign firms. Like any mega projects in the country, a project this size that has already invited India’s concerns about impending Chinese collaboration, is sure to mire even the good efforts in endless controversies, right from the beginning.

Published in Republica, May 8, 2013


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