South Asia Satellite : Dawn of India’s Space Diplomacy

“We're convinced that, if we're to play a meaningful role nationally and in the community of nations, we must be second to none in the application of advanced technologies to the real problems of man and society which we find in our country,” famously said Prof. Vikram Sarabhai, the father of the Indian Space Programme. 

It was in 1962 that India first established the Indian National Committee for Space Research (INCOSPAR) under Prof. Vikram Sarabhai’s leadership. Following the establishment of the INCOSPAR, the first rocket launch from India took place in November 1963.The ICONOSPAR grew and transformed to become the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) in 1969. With the establishment of the ISRO and further with India forming the Department of Space, space related enterprises got a boost. In the last 47 years, ISRO has improvised and developed technology, launching several indigenous vehicles into space.

One such effort was witnessed on May 5, 2017 when the important South Asia satellite was launched. The genesis for the Satellite began on June 30, 2014, when India joined in the celebrations for the successful launch of Polar Satellite Vehicle (PSLV), belonging to France. During the launch, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in a geopolitically significant move, challenged the ISRO to develop a Satellite that would serve the nations that are part of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). 

India launched the historic South Asia Satellite to enable a full range of applications and services to its neighbours in the areas of telecommunication and broadcasting applications viz. television, direct-to-home (DTH), very small aperture terminals (VSATs), tele-education, telemedicine and disaster management support. In addition to having a relatively affordable launchpad, with the launch of the South Asia Satellite, India went a step further in providing technological leadership towards solving some of the subcontinent’s socio-economic issues.  Besides India, the Satellite will cater to Nepal, Bhutan, Maldives, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan. Pakistan chose not to participate in the project. 

The launch of the Satellite was seen as an important step towards regional integration, which is significant as the SAARC countries have often been criticized for not having achieved this key objective. Tshering Tobgay, Prime Minister of Bhutan, put this aspect into perspective at the launch, where he said, “The launch also ushers in a new era of regional cooperation.”

Late Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, Former President, also known as the Missile Man of India, in his paper, ‘The Future of Space Exploration and Human Development,’ wrote, “The world population today is 6.6 billion and is projected to be more than 9 billion by 2050. The critical issues arising from this population growth are a shortage of energy, a shortage of water, and increasing damage to the natural environment and ecology.” Dr. Kalam felt that space technology could help in solving these issues. 

True to this, the South Asia Satellite also caters to understanding and solving ecological issues. “This is an extremely important step to know nature and nature's patterns,” said Mohammad Ashraf Ghani, President of Afghanistan, at the launch. The Satellite, which focuses on disaster communications, is stated to be particularly beneficial to the region which is home to about a quarter of the world's population and prone to tropical cyclones, heat waves, earthquakes, tsunamis, landslides and floods.

As India showcases geopolitically the South Asia Satellite as a gift to South Asian countries, the scientists from ISRO are most interested to watch the launch vehicle's performance, as the success of the mission depends wholly on the rocket performing flawlessly. The South Asia Satellite also saw India developing its indigenous space technology. With the international space scene changing rapidly, for the South Asia Satellite, India developed its own cryogenic engine technology. India’s pursuit to develop such capabilities began more than a quarter century ago. The use of the special engine, as observed, is predominantly for energy efficiency. 

In addition to the much coveted Mangalyaan (the Mars Mission), in February 2017, India launched 104 Satellites using its workhorse PSLV-C37.  Although it is uncertain whether India will be in a leading position to win the space race, which is shifting from the Pacific-Atlantic to the Indo-Pacific, the launch of the South Asia Satellite has certainly posited the nation in the global space arena. 

Indian experts have noted that India has used space as civilian means and developmental means. However in 2007, when China conducted its anti-satellite test, it in a sense shook up and prompted the DRDO (Defence Research and Development Organisation) to build India’s own military architecture in the field of space.  India has also created the Integrated Space Cell, which is currently operated jointly by the three service arms, the DRDO, and the ISRO, making it more of a central information network system. In fact, in October 2014, India instated the country’s first defence space agency, an interim body.

What is pertinent to note though is, in the region, countries are also using space as a tool of nationalism as an integral part of their innovation driven strategies. It is in this context, China leads the pack. In the last 5 years, China has already signed 43 space co-operation agreements or memorandums of understanding with nearly 30 countries, space agencies and international organizations.

Days before the launch of the South Asia Satellite, China’s Global Times came out with an editorial praising India for the initiative and sought to be 'taken along’ in future endeavours. This read, “The effort that the Modi administration has made in providing satellite services to South Asian countries is worth praising.” The article went on to add, “China must not be excluded from Delhi’s moves of strengthening space collaboration with its neighbouring countries.”

China’s strategic influence in South Asia in the space domain is not new either. In 2011, Beijing launched a communications Satellite for long-time ally Pakistan, followed by the launch of another one for Sri Lanka in 2012.

In addition to China, other countries in the Indo-Pacific, like Singapore, Japan, Australia are also taking numerous initiatives in order to hone their space related technology and capability. Therefore, it is significant to note that space today is no more a domain controlled by the US or Russia. Asian countries are looking at space exploration as a medium of foreign policy, in specific for developmental purposes. Of the ten countries that have independently successfully launched a satellite into orbit, six are Asian, namely: China, India, Iran, Israel, Japan and North Korea. Today there are more than 60 countries involved with several public and private players in Asia, Africa and Latin America, who are coming forward to tap into the potential of space, be it for socio-economic purposes, for tele-education, tele-medicine or even strategically for military purposes.  

However, on its part, India is building on the firm foundation laid out by some of its space pioneers for an enhanced quality of living. This vision was once elucidated by Dr. Kalam himself, where he said, “Space research and technology is truly inter-disciplinary and has enabled true innovations at the intersection of multiple areas of science and engineering. It has been consistently aiming at the “impossible” and the “incredible,” every time moving the frontiers of our knowledge forward and enhancing the quality of human life.”