- India to launch communications satellite for SAARC on May 5
- 7 SAARC nations will be part of the programme, Pak opts out
- The 2,230-kg 'South Asia Satellite' will be carried by a 50-m-tall rocket
The nearly 50m-tall rocket that weighs about 412 tons will carry what has been dubbed the 'South Asia Satellite' or what the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) prefers to call GSAT-9. The 2,230-kg communications satellite has been built in three years at a cost of Rs 235 crore.
But what makes the satellite unique is that it will have a footprint that extends all over South Asia and will mark an unprecedented journey of India into "space diplomacy". The Rs 450 crore project will be a "gift" for the country's South Asian neighbours, say officials in India's foreign ministry.
"Prime Minister (Narendra) Modi has actually extended his slogan 'Sab Ka Saath Sab Ka Vikas' (development for all) to India's neighbourhood essentially to service the needs of the poor in South Asia," said Prashant Agarwal, an IIT Kanpur-trained engineer and the go-to person in the Ministry of External Affairs for the initiative.
Sources say the project was dropped as a surprise on ISRO as just four weeks into office, PM Modi asked India's space scientists to "take up the challenge of developing a SAARC satellite" that he wanted to "dedicate to our neighbourhood as a gift from India".
The South Asia Satellite has 12 Ku-band transponders which India's neighbours can utilise to bolster their communication capabilities. Each country will get access to at least one transponder through which they could beam their own telecommunication and broadcast programming. According to India, these will find use in areas such as just satellite television, very small aperture terminals (VSATs), tele-education, telemedicine and disaster management.
India has also said it will extend assistance to each country that will have to develop its own ground infrastructure for using the satellite.
India's most hostile neighbour Pakistan however has fully opted out of the project. Rest of the countries in the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation or SAARC are already on-board. While Nepal, Bhutan, Maldives, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have joined the mission, Afghanistan is still to sign the paperwork with some minor technical details still to be worked out.
Among India's neighbours, three nations already possess full-fledged communication satellites. Pakistan and Sri Lanka have their satellites built with help from China; Afghanistan also uses an old India-made satellite acquired from Europe.
Bangladesh is likely to have its first bird in the sky later this year made with help from French company Thales. Nepal has already floated a tender to acquire two communications satellites. Experts say the tiny nations of Bhutan and Maldives that may stand to gain the most from the project.
Observers say the South Asia Satellite India is an active effort by New Delhi to counter China's growing influence on its neighbours. But in the 21st-century Asian space race, China already has the first mover advantage.
Indian officials say it is better late than never and will certainly earn New Delhi praise from the world's powers for this one-of-a-kind confidence-building measure.