Earlier this month, the United States launched Nepal’s first satellite, NepaliSat-1, into orbit. The satellite, equipped with a 5-megapixel camera and a magnetometer, is meant to gather information about Nepal’s topography and earth’s magnetic field, and is part of the greater attention the country is paying to the space realm amid domestic and wider regional developments.
The NepaliSat-1 was launched by the United States under the “Birds-3 satellite launch to International Space Station project.” The BIRDS project is a UN initiative to help countries launch their first satellite and the Japanese Kyushu Institute of Technology has been involved in this particular project. Under the project, there was also a satellite from Sri Lanka, named Raavana-1, that was launched along with the NepaliSat-1.
Nepal’s satellite was developed by two Nepali scientists, Abhas Maskey and Hariram Shrestha, at Japan’s Kyushu Institute of Technology and carries the Nepali national flag and the logo of the Nepal Academy of Science and Technology (NAST). Suresh Kumar Dhungel, senior technical officer and spokesperson of NAST, said that the data and images will be available in a month, by which time the ground station at NAST is expected to be ready. It is reported that the ground station at NAST will be able to receive data from the other Birds-3 project satellites too.
Nepal government is estimated to have spent a total of 20 million Nepali rupees (roughly $180,000) for the development and launch of the satellite as well as the construction of the ground station. This was clearly a proud moment for Nepal, and Nepal’s Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli congratulated the scientists in a tweet saying, “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.”
Nepal’s involvement with satellites is expected to continue. The country is working on a second satellite, Nepal PQ-1, to be launched in 2020. And given the growing demand in the telecommunications sector, Nepal is reported to be working with France to launch a communication satellite in 2022.
That this is being made a priority should come as no surprise given Nepal’s own needs. For instance, currently, Nepal’s service providers rely on foreign communication satellites for meeting their requirement in the broadcasting and telecommunication sectors, but Kathmandu clearly understands the cost-effectiveness of having its own satellite. The growth projection in areas including direct-to-home (DTH) and rural internet connectivity is pushing Kathmandu to expand its own assets in outer space.
Interestingly, Nepal and Sri Lanka chose to avoid India and China — the two established space powers in the neighborhood — to launch their satellites. This comes after Bangladesh launched its Bangabandhu-1 satellite on an improved version of SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket last summer. India had reportedly offered assistance to launch the satellite but because the satellite weighed 3,500 kg, it was beyond the Indian launch capacity at the time.
On the other hand, both Nepal and Bangladesh are part of the Indian-launched South Asia Satellite (SAS) – or GSAT-9 – that has significance in the context of communication, e-governance, and disaster management. The SAS is expected to enhance communication and provide better disaster links in the Indian neighborhood. The satellite, launched in May 2017, was characterized by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi as a “priceless gift” to India’s neighbors.
More specifically with respect to Nepal, under the SAS, India agreed to provide at least one transponder with a bandwidth of 24,000 to 36,000 MHz to Nepal, though Nepal had to establish its own ground stations. In fact, a senior diplomat the Indian Embassy in Kathmandu is reported to have said that Nepal would receive two transponders on the SAS. Further, Nepali engineers are to be trained at Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) training centers in India. Each of the participating countries – Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, the Maldives, Nepal, and Sri Lanka –have received 36 Mbps of bandwidth from this satellite.
It was smart of Modi to use outer space to entice India’s neighbors, giving New Delhi a high-profile success while also satisfying some real needs of its neighbors. Going beyond GSAT-9, Modi is reported to have invited the South Asian neighborhood also to use the Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System, a mini-version of the U.S. Global Positioning System. India could also be fielding its remote sensing satellites to help its neighbors as the growth for downstream applications picks up pace. While there has been some apprehension in the neighborhood about getting caught up in the geopolitical tensions between India and China, space cooperation is probably too tempting an offer for smaller countries like Nepal to refuse.
All indications are that Nepal’s focus on satellites is expected to continue in the coming years. And the recent launch reinforces the need to pay greater attention to smaller countries in South Asia and beyond in the wider conversation about space cooperation and assistance. Though space is often discussed in the context of emerging geopolitical competition between major powers, other dynamics such as these also have their own importance as well.