Almost all Indian media outlets – from electronic and print media to social media – are giving wide coverage to an apparently “unusual development in the region” under which Pakistan is all set to upgrade and advance its indigenous space programme which previously had “limited quality advancements” as compared to that of India which has of late been engaged in active cooperation with the United States in order to enhance and upgrade its (Indian) satellite programme. In the recently announced annual budget, the Pakistan government has allocated reasonable funding for the current fiscal. After successful completion of the programme, Pakistan is likely to come at par in space technology as well.
Obviously, the news of Pakistan’s more vibrant and advance space programme plan has sent shockwaves, especially across India, as the report published in newspapers specifically mentions that this programme is primarily aimed at keeping an eye on the Indian side, besides other purposes. However, on the other hand, people of Pakistan, civil society, intelligentsia and political-cum-defence observers have expressed great satisfaction, as for Pakistan advance space programmes were the need of the hour not only from 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 the changing scenario in the region, under which India has advanced itself to create security imbalance in the region.
Pakistan is entering a new era of advancement after its most successful, advanced and vibrant nuclear deterrent and missile system programmes. This will help reduce Pakistan’s dependence on foreign satellites it needs to use for civil and military purposes. Earlier, Pakistan had been getting help from the US and France. Under the new indigenous space programme, Pakistan plans to initiate several projects to develop its own self-reliance capacity while reducing the dependence on foreign satellites.
The budget for SUPARCO (Pakistan’s Space and Upper Atmosphere Research Organisation) for the upcoming fiscal year 2018-2019 has been set as Rs4.70 billion, which includes Rs2.55 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 and the masses in Pakistan since 2005. The budget allocation includes funding of Rs1.35 billion for Pakistan Multi-Mission Satellite (PakSat-MM1). Likewise, Pakistan 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 a Space Application Research Centre in Karachi with a budget of Rs200 million in 2018-2019. The total cost of PakSat-MM1 is said to be Rs27.57 billion and the cost of the space centres is Rs26.91 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 the 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 our populations can be better served by television broadcasting via satellites. Besides, communication satellites provide an important and essential communication medium for 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 and 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 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.
SUPARCO was launched to strive to achieve self-reliance in space technology and applications for national security, the 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 Prof. Abdus Salam as Chairman and Dr. I. H. Usmani as Vice Chairman. In 1984, the government approved the long-term Space Science 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 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 funds, Pakistan will be able to take lead in advancement of space technology, like its missile programme and nuclear technology.