*K V Venkatasubramanian
India’s successful launch of the first-ever South Asia Satellite (SAS) to boost communication and improve disaster links among its six neighbours has “opened up new horizons of engagement” in the region and helped it carve a unique place for itself in space diplomacy.
Projecting the 2,230-kg communication spacecraft as India’s “priceless gift” to its neighbours, Prime Minister Modi said the “unprecedented” development sends out a message that “even sky is not the limit when it comes to regional cooperation”.
Built by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) and funded entirely by India, the Geostationary Communication Satellite-9 (GSAT-9) was launched on board GSLV-F09 rocket from the Sriharikota spaceport, off the coast of Andhra Pradesh, on May 5.
Termed India’s technology largesse from the sky to the peoples of the region, the satellite will prove to be a boon in the entire region’s progress. It is also expected to cement bonds among Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal and Sri Lanka.
The successful launch by ISRO was celebrated jointly through a video conference by Modi, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, Bhutanese Prime Minister Thering Tobgay, Maldivian President Abdulla Yameen, Nepalese Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal and Sri Lankan President Maithripala Srisena.
Pakistan is not a part of the project as it had refused to accept India’s “invaluable gift”, proposed by Modi soon after he became the Prime Minister in 2014. The initial proposal to name it as “SAARC Satellite” was changed to South Asia Satellite following Pakistan’s refusal. The satellite’s footprint, extending all over South Asia, is for use by neighbours. Globally, the gift has perhaps no precedent.
The 2,230-kg communication spacecraft, with a mission life of 12 years, will support effective communication, broadcasting and Internet services in a region that is geographically challenging, economically lagging with limited technological resources.
The SAS or GSAT-9 is a geosynchronous communications and meteorology satellite. It will provide significant capability to each of the participating countries in terms of DTH (direct-to-home), besides linking the countries for disaster information transfer. It will help them in better governance, better banking and education in remote areas, more predictable weather forecasting and efficient natural resource mapping, linking people with top-end medical services through telemedicine and quick response to natural disasters. Its benefits also include deeper IT connectivity and fostering people-to-people contact.
The satellite has 12 Ku band transponders which the six nations can utilise to increase communications. Each South Asian country will get access to one transponder through which it will be able to beam its own programming, besides common “South Asian programming”. The countries will have to develop their own ground infrastructure. India is willing to extend assistance and knowhow.
Tweeting immediately after the launch, the prime minister congratulated ISRO scientists on achieving a flawless lift-off. He said, “With this launch we have started a journey to build the most advanced frontier of our partnership. With its position high in the sky, this symbol of South Asian cooperation would meet the aspirations of economic progress of more than 1.5 billion people in our region and extend our close links into outer space.”
Modi’s view was shared by leaders of six other countries of South Asia. They hailed India’s gesture as a new face of cooperation in space for common good of the neighbourhood. In his remarks, Ashraf Ghani noted that South Asia was one of the least integrated regions in the world. “South Asia today has taken a giant step towards regional integration…If cooperation through land is not possible, we can be connected through space.”
Sheikh Hasina said the new satellite would change the face of South Asia and expand connectivity from land and water to space.
Tshering Tobgay described the launch as an “impressive milestone in the history of the world” with one country launching a satellite for the “free use of its neighbours”.
Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom said it underlined India’s “neighbourhood first” foreign policy and showed its commitment to the development of the region.
Pushpa Kamal Dahal said the satellite was a “testimony” to South Asia becoming self-reliant in space science. It would boost connectivity in the region that, in turn, would spur development.
Maithripala Sirisena said the satellite would help alleviate poverty and improve the living standards of South Asians.
The project cost India nearly RS 450 crore, with the satellite itself costing Rs 235 crore. This was GSLV’s 11thlaunch. The SAS is orbiting the Earth in its Geosynchronus Transfer Orbit (GTO). In the coming days, the satellite orbit will be raised to the final circular Geostationary Orbit (GSO) by firing the satellite’s Liquid Apogee Motor (LAM) in stages. It will be commissioned into service after the completion of orbit-raising operations and the satellite’s positioning in its designated slot in the GSO following in-orbit testing of its payloads.
The successful run of India’s premier space agency, ISRO, continues. The launch has added yet another feather to ISRO’s cap. India created space history and broke record by launching 104 satellites from a single rocket in one go in mid-February, this year. So far, ISRO has ferried 226 satellites into orbit, including 180 from abroad. ISRO is attempting to increase its capacity to deliver by scaling up the frequency of launches to 12 per year from the seven, currently, by building more satellites and lowering the cost of access to space.
India’s second moon landing mission Chandrayaan-2, a fully Indian affair, is slated to hit the skies in early 2018.
*The author is an independent journalist and columnist, with four decades of experience in all media streams-print, online, radio and television. He writes on developmental issues.