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Space: Above and Beyond

December 26, 2013


The only existing telescope in Karachi University, acquired in 1956. — White Star Photo
The only existing telescope in Karachi University, acquired in 1956. — White Star Photo
The forceful and ambitious Dr Javed Iqbal. — White Star Photo
The forceful and ambitious Dr Javed Iqbal. — White Star Photo
The observatory at Karachi University. — White Star Photo
The observatory at Karachi University. — White Star Photo

The field of space and planetary astrophysics remains relatively obscure amongst academic disciplines taught in Pakistan, but with India recently having launched its Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM), the onus is now on the second-largest country in South Asia to make similar steps.

Unfortunately, the history of Pakistan’s space program has been chequered at best. Nobel Laureate Dr Abdus Salam is credited for being the driving force behind the establishment of a national space authority after his recommendation to Ayub Khan to do so. The Space and Upper Atmosphere Research Commission (SUPARCO) was subsequently inaugurated on September 16, 1961 and launched its first satellite, the Rebhar-I, shortly after with collaboration with the air force. Pakistan became the third country in Asia and tenth in the world to launch a rocket into orbit, thereby marking its glory days.

Subsequent bureaucratisation and infighting led to resources being siphoned away from SUPARCO and into the Khan Research Laboratories (KRL), which was spearheading the atomic bomb project. Administrative lapses also meant that key personnel were transferred away from the space authority and non-technical personnel were placed in important positions. Further embarrassment came when Pakistan was unable to meet its launch timelines for satellites and was forced to rely on Chinese assistance in order to maintain its presence in the galaxy. In many ways the fortunes of SUPARCO and that of space science in general, have mirrored the path that Pakistan has forged on its way to progress.

However, after the impetus provided to science and technology under Pervez Musharraf’s era, there is now a new ambitious ‘Space Programme 2040’ in place which envisions a significant expansion of Pakistan’s celestial capabilities. The aim is that by the year 2040 there will be a total overhaul of all of SUPARCO’s existing satellites in orbit, reaching a total of 11. There will also be significant expansions in the field of rocket engineering, development of military and civil technology, and further collaboration with China in order to train existing human resources.

To investigate further, I paid a visit to the University of Karachi in order to further enlighten myself on the subject.

The Institute of Space and Planetary Astrophysics at the University of Karachi is the first institution in Pakistan to offer both M.Phil and PhD degrees in the discipline. Dr Javed Iqbal, the head of the department, is extremely keen to expand upon the scope of the department and bring it in tune with its South Asian counterparts. “There are several sectors of the economy in which graduates of this department can enter. These include remote sensing, GIS, civil aviation, weather forecasting, communications and others,” he affirms.

Dr Javed exudes a sense of purpose and determination to rid Pakistan’s dependence on satellites launched by bodies such as NASA and others. He explains how it is essential to have our domestic satellites orbit the earth to traffic our local communications industry as well as help with identification of natural disaster sites.

“Currently satellites orbited and piloted by bodies such as NASA only picture Pakistan once every few hours,” he says. “If we have our own satellites, we can program them to meet our own strategic needs, as well as help our domestic industry with 24-hour coverage.”

The deplorable state of Pakistan’s space exploration programme is exemplified when Dr Javed explains how the only observatory available for use by students, which is located inside the University, has a single functioning telescope; one which was donated by the German manufacturer Carl-Zeiss back in 1956. Furthermore, the telescope is fitted with a six-inch lens, while the global accepted standard for inter-galactic observation is set at one foot.

“Our approved budget for the year is barely enough to meet salaries and administrative expenses,” explains Dr Javed. “Purchasing a new telescope is on the top of my priorities but currently no one in the Higher Education Department seems willing to disburse the funds for it.”

The professor also reminisces about Musharraf’s era where funds for science and technology-related disciplines were readily available. “The current government is only interested in handing out laptops,” he remarks candidly. “They do not understand that the state has to carefully nurture interest in the subject for future gains.”

The most interesting part of my research was when we discussed at length the real reasons behind the continued quest for nations to reach the red planet – Mars. Presumably a quest for national pride and identity, Dr Javed is quick to refute that. He painstakingly explains how it is very likely that Mars holds immense mining value in terms of its mineral, especially rare earth, deposits. “This is a race to capture resources,” he elucidates. “The quicker countries reach Mars, the more time they will have to stake claim to land and carry out their research and exploration activities."

While there is no doubt that Dr Javed and his colleagues remain committed and invested to their profession, there is still little or no progress that Pakistan is seeing on this frontier. Current PhD students were unsure of their future or career aspirations after they graduated from the programme. Some were pursuing it simply from a religious mindset, in order to track prayer times more precisely and assist in the spotting of the moon to help determine the lunar-based Islamic calendar. Others were doing it simply out of ‘interest.’

While the ‘Space Programme 2040’ remains an achievable goal, there is simply not enough funding and interest in its foundations for it to effectively become part of the national discourse. However with individuals like Dr Javed, one can still retain some hope.