GSAT-09 – Modi’s gift to South Asia

SP's MAI - - AEROSPACE VIEWPOINT - LT GEN­ERAL P.C. KA­TOCH (RETD) The views ex­pressed herein are the per­sonal views of the au­thor.

GSAT-09 or SAS (South Asia Satel­lite) is the lat­est tech­no­log­i­cal move by Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi for in­te­grat­ing South Asia, a re­solve he had shown at the swear­ing in of his govern­ment by invit­ing all SAARC lead­ers, in­clud­ing Nawaz Sharif, Prime Min­is­ter of Pak­istan. GSAT-9, the com­mu­ni­ca­tions satel­lite put into or­bit by ISRO on May 5 from Sri­harikota is a 2,230-kg ven­ture bring­ing on the same plat­form South Asian coun­tries; In­dia, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Mal­dives, Nepal and Sri Lanka, Pak­istan hav­ing opted out ear­lier. Op­er­at­ing in the Ku-Band, the 12 transpon­ders of SAS of­fer a range of ser­vices in­clud­ing bank­ing net­works, weather fore­cast, telemedicine, dis­as­ter man­age­ment, tele-ed­u­ca­tion and broad­cast­ing ser­vices such as tele­vi­sion, DTH and the works. In­dia will also aid par­tic­i­pat­ing na­tions in de­vel­op­ing ground sta­tions to ac­cess the data re­layed by the satel­lite.

Am­bas­sadors of all the six par­tic­i­pat­ing na­tions were in­vited to wit­ness the lift-off of SAS from the Satish Dhawan Space Cen­tre, Sri­harkota given the geo-po­lit­i­cal value of the event. Speak­ing to lead­ers of the con­cerned na­tions (Afghan Pres­i­dent Ashraf Ghani, Bhutan Prime Min­is­ter Tsh­er­ing Tob­gay, Nepal Prime Min­is­ter Pushpa Ka­mal Da­hal Prachanda, Bangladesh Prime Min­is­ter Sheikh Hasina, Sri Lanka Pres­i­dent Maithri­pala Sirisena and Mal­dives Pres­i­dent Ab­dulla Yameen) through video­con­fer­enc­ing, Prime Min­is­ter Modi said that the launch of the SAS “demon­strates that our col­lec­tive choices for our cit­i­zens will bring us to­gether for co­op­er­a­tion, not con­flict; devel­op­ment, not de­struc­tion; and pros­per­ity, not poverty”. Heads of the par­tic­i­pat­ing na­tions ex­pressed hap­pi­ness and en­thu­si­asm at the video con­fer­ence.

SAS, first mooted in Novem­ber 2014 as SAARC Satel­lite dur­ing the Kath­mandu SAARX sum­mit, till it was re­named af­ter Pak­istan pulled out, has been op­er­a­tionalised in quick time. Ku­dos are in or­der to the ini­tia­tive and push by Prime Min­is­ter Modi, but equally to the Pres­i­dents/Prime Min­is­ters of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Mal­dives, Sri Lanka and Mal­dives for their fore­sight, spirit of in­te­gra­tion and re­solve for bet­ter­ment of their na­tions and the re­gion. While In­dia has cap­i­talised on its low-cost space tech­nol­ogy (and why not), the ven­ture with­out par­al­lel in the world; as per BBC, no coun­try ever has funded an en­tire space pro­gram it­self and then ‘gifted’ the satel­lite ser­vices free of cost to other coun­tries, as In­dia has done.

SAS be­came the first In­dian space­craft to carry an elec­tric propul­sion sys­tem (EPS), which can sig­nif­i­cantly re­duce the fuel satel­lites need to carry, thus paving the way for devel­op­ment of fu­ture satel­lites that will be con­sid­er­ably lighter. SAS car­ried just 25 per cent of chem­i­cal fuel it would have had to carry in the ab­sence of EPS. This means the work­load a 5,000-kg satel­lite can take can be achieved by a 3,500-3,700 kg satel­lite equipped with EPS.

In his fort­nightly ra­dio ad­dress ‘Mann Ki Baat’ to the na­tion on May 7, Prime Min­is­ter Modi re­fer­ring to the SAS said, “The ca­paci- ties of this satel­lite and the fa­cil­i­ties it pro­vides will go a long way in ad­dress­ing South Asia’s eco­nomic and de­vel­op­men­tal pri­or­i­ties.” No doubt SAS has geo-strate­gic im­por­tance but In­dia is not look­ing at or coun­ter­ing China’s strat­egy of ‘string of pearls’. Pak­istan be­sides her anti-In­dia fix­a­tion, un­der Chi­nese in­flu­ence, backed out from SAS. In fact, there is spec­u­la­tion that Pak­istan may have tried to cy­ber at­tack launch of the satel­lite. There was also re­port of back chan­nel diplo­macy be­tween Prime Min­is­ter Modi and Nawaz Sharif through Sa­j­jan Jin­dal, which the Pak­istan army did not want hav­ing been not taken into con­fi­dence by Nawaz Sharif. The re­cent heinous cross-bor­der ac­tion of be­head­ing sol­diers of an LoC (Line of Con­trol) pa­trol by a Bor­der Ac­tion Team (BAT) of Pak­istani army was likely aimed at de­rail­ing any back chan­nel and forc­ing post­pone­ment of launch of the SAS to em­bar­rass In­dia. Devel­op­ment and launch of Pak­istan’s satel­lites are with Chi­nese help.

In 2018, Pak­istan plans to launch a re­mote-sens­ing satel­lite into space; built by and China and launched from a Chi­nese launch pad. China has also been help­ing Sri Lanka and Bangladesh in their space pro­gramme. China will launch Sri Lanka’s sec­ond satel­lite dur­ing 2018. Strangely, Afghanistan has ‘yet’ to rat­ify us­ing the free ser­vices of SAS, which may be a mere de­lay or un­der Chi­nese pres­sure, es­pe­cially with China of­fer­ing Afghanistan help to build and launch lat­ter’s sec­ond satel­lite Afghansat-2, which Afghanistan has ac­cepted. Life of Afghansat-1, de­vel­oped jointly by Euro­pean com­pany EADS and ISRO (launched by EADS), ends around mid 2020. SAS of­fers one or more transpon­ders to Afghanistan but China has of­fered en­tire satel­lite (Afghansat-2) to Afghanistan, not free but per­haps at a dis­counted cost and long-term in­ter­est re­pay­ment plan. China also set up in 2005, Asia-Pa­cific Space Co­op­er­a­tion Or­ga­ni­za­tion (APSCO), with Bangladesh, Iran, Mon­go­lia, Pak­istan, Peru, Thai­land and Turkey, to pro­mote col­lab­o­ra­tive ven­tures. Dur­ing 2017, Bangladesh will have its own ‘Bangla­bandhu-1’ com­mu­ni­ca­tions satel­lite, built by Thales Ale­nia Space (joint Ital­ian-French) ven­ture.

South Asian space is set for more ac­ti­va­tion and Chi­nese in­tent of ex­ert­ing grav­i­ta­tional pull to bring South Asian coun­tries more and more into her sphere of in­flu­ence is real­ity. In ad­di­tion to the SAS, In­dia is work­ing on other ven­tures like the Mo­tor Ve­hi­cle Agree­ment be­tween BIMSTEC (Bay of Ben­gal Ini­tia­tive for Mul­tiSec­toral Tech­ni­cal and Eco­nomic Co­op­er­a­tion) states that aims at bet­ter re­gional con­nec­tiv­ity be­tween seven south Asian na­tions (ex­cept Pak­istan). In­dia has also of­fered to build satel­lite track­ing sta­tion in Viet­nam. One can only hope that Pak­istan, though backed by China in its pol­icy of state ter­ror­ism) at some point of time starts work­ing to­wards in­te­grated devel­op­ment of the re­gion, rather than desta­bil­is­ing it.

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