Maj. Gen. Ahmed Bilal, heading SUPARCO as Chairman since Sept. 2010, is utlilising all available national resources to boost the National Space programme. He had a key role in launching the Pakistan’s first communication satellite in August 2011. After being placed at Pak Army’ GHQ, he did pioneering work in developing the structure of Nuclear Command and Control and raising of strategic forces. In recognition of his contribution to the National Development Programmes, he has been awarded Hilal-e- Imtiaz (military).
Technology Times: Would you like to give a brief introduction of SUPARCO and how it was established?
AHMED BILAL: SUPARCO, which has a history of about 50 years now, celebrated its golden jubilee in 2010. We have established this space organization in 1960, exactly one year before India. One must give credit to the vision of, Dr. Abdus Salam, who realizing the importance of space science and its future convinced the Govt to establish this organization. NASA which had then recently started their space program helped Pakistan. At that time, NASA was trying to study the upper atmosphere. It is with help of NASA that SUPARCO started the sounding rockets development program. These rockets are fired to collect the upper atmosphere data. The information gathered from these sounding rockets flights is still available with SUPARCO and is purposefully utilized. Since than, SUPARCO, worked continuously to build capacity and harness various aspects of Space Science and technology, though at a slow pace till 1999. During this period SUPARCO did sent two experimental satellites BADR I and BADR B, in space. However, in year 2000, SUPARCO was reorganized and the pace of development and capacity building picked up pace. Consequently, Pakistan launched its first commercial communication satellite PAKSAT 1R on 12 Aug 2011.
How was the communication satellite launched?
Initially, Pakistan had few slots booked in the geo synchronous orbit with the ITU. However due to non deployment of the communication satellite by due dates, Pakistan lost all slots, and was left with only one slot by 1999. So as a first step to secure the slot a used satellite was leased in space and maneuvered for deployment at 38 degrees; the allotted slot in Dec 2002. This satellite was named PAKSAT 1 and was to retire by end 2011. The challenge was thus to launch the replacement satellite before the retirement of the PAKSAT 1. A contract was thus concluded with the Chinese side in 2007 for joint development of the communication satellite PAKSAR 1R. A team of about 80 to 90 Pakistani engineers went to China and worked in developing this satellite as there was no facility in Pakistan for satellite development of this size/type. On August 12, 2011, the PAKSAT-1R was launched. In the mean time, work started of developing the infrastructure for laying the foundation of the satellite industry in Pakistan. Simultaneously, we also started working on other components of space science and technology, specially on space technology applications for socio-economic development.
Do you think that agriculture in Pakistan could get benefits from the communication satellite?
Indirectly, yes. However, Agriculture sector gets maximum benefit from intelligent applications of data collected through Remote Sensing Satellites. Since Pakistan is basically an agricultural country, our prime focus was to develop this sector and subsequently we started working on related areas like water management system, etc. Many remote sensing applications have been developed to support the agriculture sector. We are undertaking focused work to develop the remote sensing satellites in Pakistan. The communication satellite PAKSAT 1R, has a life of 15 years and is doing good business. This satellite probably has the strongest beam in the region as compared to any other satellite. Since it has strong signals, everybody wants capacity on our satellite. Presently entertainment TV, GSM backhaul, internet communication, etc. are hooked on to the satellite. In immediate future, people even in remote and inaccessible areas of the country, will Inshallah soon start availing the services for tele-education and tele-medicine. Similarly, the schools, colleges and hospitals of those areas will also start benefiting from this service.
Is it true, that, Space programme could accelerate research and development activities in the country?
Space Technology Applications act as a catalyst in the socio-economic development. Close relationship between the universities and R&D organizations like ours, enable research and development activities to really pick up. The government had been very helpful, because it had financed establishing of the basic labs for satellite development. Most of these labs are 90 per cent complete. After the completion of these labs, we can really do our research in space sciences and technology in addition to designing and making our own components. We have to work in two directions; one to cover the technological gap, and secondly to initiate R&D in the emerging cutting edge technologies. Space technology and its applications cover a wide range of technical disciplines/subjects; hence progression of the space technologies will definitely contribute in acceleration of R&D culture in Pakistan.
What kind of approach do you think is needed to analyze the achieved items and how could we get benefit of this technology?
There is a need to launch an awareness campaign to educate various segments of the society on the applications of the space technology in various developmental projects. This will greately support the socioeconomic development. There is also a need to ensure that space technology and its applications should become part of various curriculums in the universities and colleges. Universities should also undertake active R&D in various disciplines of space science and technology and its applications. Moreover, various spin of technologies should also be put to use for generating economic and development activities in various sectors.
Commercialization of research is missing in Pakistan. How can we bridge the missing link?
Universities are the places where research really incubates. We have to encourage extensive multi-disciplinary research in the universities. Besides to support the research there should be extensive Industry –university cooperation to lay the foundation of research culture. Last year, SUPARCO had given 50 multiple research projects to the under-graduate students of different universities, on related subjects. We are already reaching out to the universities and from next year onwards, plan to initiate some faculty projects of longer durations as these projects cannot be finished in the undergraduate course. In near future a student satellite program would be launched. The country has few universities which have that capability and infrastructure that could support high tech research in Pakistan. While, university-Industry collaboration is the only way forward, for commercialization of research. In near future, student satellite program will be launched. This will enable universities to design small satellites we called nano-satellites. At this point, one satellite which has the dimension of 10×10 cm, known as a CUBESAT, developed by IST (Institute of Space Technology) is ready to be launched. Negotiations are underway with several countries operating Space Launch Vehicles (SLV) for the execution of the launch. We are already working out at this point of time as to what will be the configuration for the student designed satellites and how should the students benefit from it. Its main activity will be regulated by IST (under supervision of SUPARCO) and different university will be free to design different types of payloads. Its final flying model would be assembled in our facility because it has to be in a specific environment before its launch. Launching and operation of this type of satellite will generate a lot of interest nationwide, especially in the student community.
Do you think that we are losing the cream of scientists in Pakistan? What should we do on this front?
There is no dearth of talent in Pakistan. We have to provide opportunity and an environment conducive for R&D. You see there will always be technologies to master, because we are starting from a rudimentary position. I will not clearly claim that we can advance very quickly but we will start becoming contemporary as fresh minds use new ideas. We require a cultural change and provide requisite where-with-all which supports advanced research in various disciplines. Many of our brilliant minds who want to come back to Pakistan and undertake R&D, find themselves handicapped because of the poorly equipped R&D infrastructure in universities and other research institutions. We need to create synergy and good lateral connectivity between various involved components to promote R&D culture. In the absence of proper R&D culture the flight of the talent from the country will continue. More over we should also establish International linkages to promote R&D culture in Pakistan. Industry- academia linkages are also necessary to support R&D activity in Pakistan.
Do you have any mechanism to disseminate knowledge about what is going on in the field of space sciences and satellite?
Since January 2011, we are issuing a bulletin based on our monitoring through satellite of agriculture on monthly basis, which is sent to various stake holders, besides this bulletin is also posted on the SUPARCO web site. We have also recently started another monthly bulletin of Astronomy and Astrophysics; this bulletin is also available on the SUPARCO web site and also outlines monthly astronomical events for the interested to observe through their telescopes . Two books have been written and are being provided to the school libraries, to promote knowledge on space science and technology and its applications. Besides this, we are working closely with several universities, for laying the foundation of space technology knowledge base and its applications in Pakistan. A lecturing program to various segments of the society including students is already underway to disseminate knowledge on Space Science and Technology and its application specially its importance for socio-economic development.
How can a Pakistani benefit from satellites or what positive change can occur in the life of a common man?
As I have already said earlier that space technology applications act as a catalyst in socio-economic development of the country. Remote sensing applications, help in supporting various sectors; e.g. Agriculture, Hydrology, environmental studies, urban planning, geology, mineral prospection, disaster relief operations, revnue collection, management and administration when combined with GIS solutions, etc. Communication satellites enable communication extension to remote areas; specially in those areas where terrestrial communication is not possible in applications like, long haul communication, TV broadcast, tele-education, tele-medicine, emergency communication once the other means fail in case of disasters and natural calamities etc. Similarly the satellite based Global Navigation System facilitates survey, aircraft operations, tourism, traffic management etc. Basically, ingenuity is the limit.
What are your views about Technology Times?
There has been a drastic decline in reading habits of general public as a result, there has been an overall decline of intellectual activity – This being a precursor for any worthwhile R&D activity. Moreover, intellectual activity creates moral enlightenment, which again are seen to be losing at a fast pace – resultantly, the chaos and confused state of society which we are witnessing presently.
Technology Times is a breath of fresh air by the virtue of its quality articles written on specialized and diversified subjects which act as catalyst for the thought process. We need to have many such periodical being read by lot many people to elevate the level of technical knowledge at national level.