On April 18, around 2:30 a.m. local time, the country launched its first nano-satellite (NepaliSat-1) with the help of the United States. For a landlocked Himalayan country like Nepal, satellites equip it to address several problems. The first nanosatellite will circle the earth only after a month and a half after it is released to orbit by the International Space Station. NepaliSat-1 will revolve around the earth for at least six months and is expected to take pictures of Nepal.
NepaliSat-1 weighs only 1.3 kilograms and was designed by Nepali scientists Aabhas Maskey and Hariram Shrestha who are studying at Japan’s Kyushu Institute of Technology (KYUIT). The satellite was launched under the BIRDS program of the United Nations in association with the Japanese institution and the Nepal Academy of Science and Technology (NAST). Both scientists said that it was a remarkable feat for Nepal’s space science and only proved that the country was now capable of launching satellites on own. However, the country is far from doing so on its own. For instance, Nepal doesn’t even have a ground station to monitor NepaliSat-1 though NAST officials say that work has already been started to build the first ground station.
Dr. Suresh Kumar Dhungel, the spokesperson at NAST, said in a statement:
The ground station is being built within our premises in a month or so. Once it is completed our engineer Roshan Pandey will work for the NepaliSat-1. Even if our ground station doesn’t finish, Japan’s Kyutik will communicate with it. The satellite is launched mainly for an outreach program, increasing capacity building, emotional presence in space, long-range communication, building space components, validity test of various components, and also the check the robustness of the satellite. This has technical benefits for Nepalese people.
The historic event of NepaliSat-1’s launch was welcomed by the Nepalese people, but few were divided about it, terming the satellite as nothing but a ceremonial one. Prime Minister K.P. Oli tweeted: “Though a humble beginning, with the launching of NepaliSat-1, Nepal has entered the Space-Era. I wish to congratulate all those scientists and institutions that were involved right from the development to its launching thereby enhancing the prestige of our country.” The public was of different opinions regarding the tweet. Some appreciated it, but others said that the government should focus on other issues like poverty, health, and education. Irrespective of these opinions, analysts believe that this event will likely help Oli to boost his party come the next election.
On the other hand, analysts from India also applauded the move, but questioned why Nepal didn’t choose the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) for the launch. They were concerned about Nepal’s future space plans. India had launched the South Asia Satellite on May 5, 2017, but Nepal never made use of it. Both countries signed an agreement in March 2016 on its use. Nepal, however, hasn’t used the dedicated transponder for geopolitical reasons. Pakistan already opted out from the project, and Sri Lanka followed suit.
Space exploration for Nepal is neither military in nature nor a priority in the present context. Caught between two emerging giants, India and China, the nation now aims to break away from either’s geopolitical clutches, and also seeks to equip itself for future natural disasters, evolve its communications, and most importantly provide nationwide access to the Internet.
Nepal aims to launch its first commercial satellite, a high-performance C and Ku Band satellite, by 2022 and many believe that it will be a game-changer for the landlocked nation. Nepal Telecommunications Authority (NTA) and France’s Thales Alenia Space signed an agreement on March 12 to build and launch Nepal’s first satellite. Nepal aims to operate the satellite for internet access, telemedicine, tourism, digital broadcasting, communication, economic growth, and disaster management. Nepal’s government has already directed Nepal Telecom to expand 4G services nationwide within a year and introduce 5G services in selected cities. China’s China Communication Service International and ZTE are working on the project and the 5G upgrade is likely to happen with assistance either from them or another Chinese firm, Huawei.
For India, this is a matter of concern as it sees Nepal as pulling away from its orbit. Nepal’s decision to partner with France, rather than ISRO, to launch its first commercial satellite underscores this concern. India and China may be both motivated to offer their space programs in a more competitive manner to Nepal, further complicating the geopolitical struggle that Nepal is already embroiled in. But the increasing clout of China in Nepal could compel the Himalayan country to launch its future satellites from there, distressing India even further. On the other hand, the Indian government is also expected to try and lure Nepal to its esteemed space program. It seems, after all, Nepal is not free from India and China in space either. What it does in the coming weeks and months will determine its space program and the future of the nation too.