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GSLV GSAT-9 llaunch
The May 5 launch of the GSAT=9 spacecraft, also known as the “South Asian” satellite, on a GSLV. (credit: ISRO)

India launches a South Asia satellite

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Diplomacy is all about projections. Many times countries are known to use cultural, economic, and technological prowess for constructive engagement with others. Also, on occasion, such acts can even help build bridges with an adversary. India, which has excellent relations with most of its neighbors, has decided to enhance the regional engagement in outer space too.

With an aim to share India’s technological expertise for the region, a concept of developing a common satellite for all these states in the region was put forth by the Indian prime minister during November 2014 South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit in Kathmandu, Nepal. SAARC, founded in 1985, is a multilateral grouping created for the collaboration and development of its member states, which include Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. All these nations except Pakistan lauded this innovative idea and decided to join the project.

India seems to have generated a significant amount of traction among the user countries with the launch of this satellite.

On May 5, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) successfully launched a Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV-F09) carrying a satellite called GSAT-9, or the “South Asia” satellite. Technologically, this was just a routine launch for ISRO, because they have already launched various communication satellites. However, for the Indian state, this launch has important geopolitical significance. India is the only spacefaring and satellite manufacturing state among the SAARC group of countries. India committed that it would cover the entire technological responsibilities and cost of this project.

GSAT-9, an I-2K bus weighing 2,195 kilograms at launch and with a payload power of 2.3 kilowatts, has a projected mission life of at least 12 years and provides various communication applications in the Ku-band, with coverage over South Asian countries. The satellite is expected to meet the needs of the user community for Ku-band transponders for direct-to-home television services. The satellite’s 12 transponders would assist South Asian states with mapping of natural resources, establishing IT connectivity, and in the field of teleeducation and telemedicine. GSAT-9 will be positioned at 48° east in geostationary orbit.

India seems to have generated a significant amount of traction among the user countries with the launch of this satellite. Just minutes after the successful launch, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was found engaged in a video conference with various leaders of SAARC countries. Heads of all partner states participated in this conference, which included Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani, Bangladesh Prime Minister Hasina, Bhutan Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay, Maldives President Abdulla Yameen, Sri Lanka Prime Minister Prachanda, and Sri Lanka President Maithripala Sirisena. These leaders thanked the Indian government for this initiative, and also hoped that regional integration would be further strengthened with such initiatives. Indirectly, this video-meet itself could be said to have demonstrated the overall relevance of space technology for the region.

Among the member countries of this project, only Sir Lanka and Afghanistan have a satellite on their inventory. Bangladesh is expected to have a communications satellite in the near future, probably by December 2017, while Nepal and Bhutan could own a small satellite in the next few years. In a geographical sense, the SAARC region constitutes just three percent of the world’s area, but includes more than one-fifth of the global population. Hence, this Indian initiative serves a significant portion of the global population.

Amongst the SAARC group of countries, Pakistan had shown some interest in this idea initially. It appears that they never wanted to be beneficiary of the project, but wanted some form of partnership in the project. However, for India, which has already reached a level of technological competence needed to carry out the project alone, it would have been difficult to manage the timeline by engaging Pakistan at every level of development of the satellite, since Pakistan’s space technology architecture is still at very nascent stage. It is also obvious that the geopolitical differences between these countries could have affected their decision-making. In fact, Pakistan could have used this as an opportunity to reduce the tensions. It should be noted that China has given indications that India should have added them in this project.

For Afghanistan and Bangladesh, the challenges were more technical in nature. They already have made some investments in the space arena and are keen to ensure that their participation in this project is not hampering those existing investments. Afghanistan has already purchased a satellite from a European company a few years ago. Bangladesh is expected to launch its own geostationary communications satellite called Bang Bandhu-1 on Falcon 9 rocket later this year, to operate at 119° east. For them, the key question was whether their participation in India’s program would lead to the duplication of assets. Although GSAT-9 and Bang Bandhu-1 would be in different orbital slots, they would have the same service area.

The satellite purchased by Afghanistan has an interesting history. A French telecommunications satellite, Eutelsat W2M, launched during 2008 for a 15-year mission. This satellite was developed and manufactured by ISRO for satellite operator Eutelsat under the ISRO-EADS Astrium alliance. This satellite was also known by names such as Eutelsat 48B, Eutelsat 28B, and Eutelsat 48D.

Education, access to information, real-time connectivity, and effective healthcare could be some of the ingredients for the development of the region, and South Asia satellite could be viewed as one of the instruments for that purpose.

During 2014, this satellite was sold to Afghanistan and has been renamed as Afghansat 1 and is expected to remain in stable orbit until at least 2020. The satellite was redeployed from 28.5° to 48° east. This satellite is supporting a wide range of services including broadcasting, mobile telephony, and providing access to ICT and broadcast services to various areas of the country. For Afghanistan, where almost the entire country has been a war zone for more than 15 years, such satellite serves a major purpose for connectivity, particularly in unserved areas.

Afghan officials appear to have concerns about the slot offered to South Asia satellite, also at 48° east, owing to the possibility of radiofrequency interference. There are some unconfirmed reports that there was a feeling that the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), which offers orbital slot for placement of satellites, could favor India because the desired slot demanded by them is for joint satellite for many countries. In addition, some unconfirmed reports indicate that Afghanistan has not been a fair negotiator and is found adding more demands in every meeting.

For any country, its neighborhood should be politically stable, secure, and prospering economically. Naturally, it is in India’s interest to ensure that a similar situation persists in their neighborhood. The South Asian region has developing economies and a rapidly growing consumer market. There is a need to “skill” the vast human capital from the region for better development. Education, access to information, real-time connectivity, and effective healthcare could be some of the ingredients for the development of the region, and South Asia satellite could be viewed as one of the instruments for that purpose.

It is obvious that one communications satellite alone would not serve that purpose. India needs to be more proactive to make the benefits available from its existing remote-sensing satellite network to their neighbors. India has plans to make their regional navigational system, NAVIC, available to the neighbors.

This Indian experiment indicates that there could be various challenges for putting such projects into reality. They could be at the geopolitical, technological, policy, and implementation levels. Presently, space is getting cluttered with an increasing number of satellites. Various smaller states have ambitions for their own satellites in orbit. It is obvious that they are keen to have the benefits of space technologies for their own growth and development. Today, the onus lies on spacefaring countries to ensure that the requirements of these countries are fulfilled. However, to avoid the overcrowding of outer space and avoid problems owing to issues like slot allotments, joint satellites like GSAT-9 could be the answer for the future.