NepaliSat-1: A Space Breakthrough
It is a matter of great satisfaction that Nepal was able to launch its own satellite into space on April 18. The satellite will be in the lower orbit, 400 kilometres above the earth. The first satellite (Sputnik 1) was launched into space in 1957 by Russia (the then Soviet Union). The launch was followed by the USA in 1958 with the launch of its Explorer 1, and by the UK and Canada with the launch of their Ariel 1 and Alouette 1 respectively. The country’s two immediate neighbours, China and India, launched their satellites Dong Fang Hong 1 and Aryabhata in 1970 and 1975 respectively. Thus, it may be inferred that the country is very backward in using technology, especially space technology. However, with the launch of NepaliSat-1, the country’s presence in space technology engineering has begun, which is a matter of pride.
NepaliSat-1 is a nano-satellite belonging to the class of miniaturised satellites. Miniaturised satellites are small in size with a low mass. Mini-satellites weigh 100 to 500 kilograms, microsatellites weigh below 100 kilograms and nano-satellites weigh below 10 kilograms. NepaliSat-1 weighs just 1.3 kilograms. There are around 1,000 miniaturised satellites in the space.
NepaliSat-1 was developed by two Nepali engineers: Abhash Maskey, who is doing Ph.D. in space technology engineering and Hari Ram Shrestha, who is pursuing Masters in electrical engineering, both at the Kyushu Institute of Technology (Kutech), Japan. Kyutech is a number one academic operator of small satellites. Nepal Science and Technology (NAST) took the initiative in launching the country’s own satellite under the Birds-3 satellite project of Kyutech designed in association with the United Nations. Kyutech collected applications from the countries having no satellites of their own in 2011. In collaboration with Kyutech, Bangladesh, Costa Rica, Egypt, Mongolia, Mexico and Turkey started the satellite project in 2015 and successfully launched their satellites into space in 2017. The country got two slots for the launch of its satellite way back in 1983 from the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and was supposed to launch its satellite into space by 2015 but it failed to do so. The government then requested the ITU to extend the deadline of launching the satellite, which the latter acquiesced in.
NepaliSat-1 will be used mainly for two purposes: government and commercial. Government services include e-governance connectivity, telecommunications services to remote places where terrestrial telecommunications support cannot provide services, disaster response and emergency services such as during floods, landslides and storms and so on. The country is prone to disasters. The country is often plagued by floods, landslides and other natural calamities. The storm that occurred in Bara and Parsa some weeks ago claimed over two dozen lives. Disaster response and emergency services come in handy during such a distressful period.
On the other hand, commercial services include direct-to-home TV services, Internet services, VSAT, radio services, etc. At present, cable TV operators, telecommunications operators and TV and radio broadcasters use satellites (owned by other countries) in providing their services. There are many remote areas in the country which are facing difficulty in accessing connectivity through terrestrial means. In such places, satellite services are the only available option. As per the directive of Nepal Rastra Bank, commercial banks are expanding their branches in all local units. Those branches operating in remote areas often complain of communication trouble. In such areas, terrestrial means fail to provide adequate communication support. Satellite services are of great help in communication in such out-of-the-way areas.
It may be noted that NepaliSat-1 will not be used for strategic or defence purposes. It will be used purely for communication and other purposes, such as taking photos of the country on a daily basis and disseminating information on the country’s mountains, hills, plains, glaciers, floods, wildfires, etc. As the satellite is small with a low capacity, it cannot work to support telephone, television and Internet communication as it cannot create a web required for such purposes. For this, a bigger satellite is required, which will cost Rs. 500 or 600 million and take ten or twelve years to make.
Satellites are used for various purposes: scientific research and investigation, weather observation, navigation, earth photographing, communication, defence, etc. They are also used to study the earth and other planets, to observe distant celestial objects and even to study the Universe. Besides, they are used to make maps of planets and stars and to take pictures of the planets they are launched into. However, their main purposes are crop monitoring; navigation; and radio, telephone, telecommunications and Internet services. Satellites have important applications in business, science, social and suchlike sectors in making communication services available in places not covered by other means. Satellites can be used even to study the trend of urbanisation.
The country has been using satellite links of other countries for communication and other purposes. It has to incur huge costs in availing of such services. On the other hand, there is always a risk of compromise on national security. Now, the country will be able to avoid high costs and a possible compromise on national security once its own satellite comes into full use.
NepaliSat-1 will be in the international space station (ISS) for a month. Thereupon, it will be sent into space. To receive pictures and data sent by the satellite and archive and monitor them, a ground station is required. But no such station has been constructed yet. The government is planning to construct one on the premises of NAST. NAST says that it has one month’s time to construct the station and that the process of procuring necessary equipment has begun.
Although late, the country has owned its own satellite. This is just the beginning. This important development in hitherto uncharted territory will encourage Nepali scientists to make further headway in the domain of science and technology in the days to come. It is often reported that the government does not allocate an adequate budget for the development of science and technology.
The support of the government in the development of NepaliSat-1 has shown that the government is serious about the development of science and technology. Now, it behoves the government to take the initiative in launching bigger satellites that support radio, television, Internet and other services. Let’s hope the government will take concrete measures in this direction.
(Former banker, Maharjan has been regularly writing on contemporary issues for this daily since 2000)