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The Push to Boost Pakistan’s Space Program


In his speech during the AirTech ’17 conference in December 2017 at Air University Islamabad, the Chief of Air Staff (CAS) of the Pakistan Air Force (PAF), Air Chief Marshal (ACM) Sohail Aman, stated that Pakistan would send two astronauts into space with China’s help by 2020.[1] In light of the unfortunate reality that Pakistan did not maintain a sufficiently robust space program to undertake a feat such as that on its own, the promise was met with a mixed response, with some quarters skeptical of Pakistan doing much more with the opportunity than simply sending people into space (i.e. not conducting research as is generally expected of state-sanctioned astronauts and manned space missions).

However, this might be an unfair assertion considering the current PAF CAS’ commitment to not only securing the long-term requirements of the PAF through domestic industry inputs (i.e. Project Azm), but to implement it such that the Pakistani manufacturing and research and development (R&D) base can substantively grow in concert. Overall, the mission to send-up astronauts may have less to do with the event and more to do with building national excitement towards space development, something that had gotten lost in national narratives since the initiation of the country’s nuclear weapons program.


Pakistan’s Space and Upper Atmosphere Research Commission (SUPARCO) deserves an article or report in its own right, especially in terms of its history, achievements and its gradual remission since the 1970s. However, the focus for this piece is to discuss Pakistan’s current space development plans, especially its “Space Vision 2040” initiative which basically seeks to revive SUPARCO as a mature and, above all, a truly technologically progressive entity that could be analogous to other space development programs, not the least Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO). This is not to say SUPARCO will match ISRO by 2040, but rather, the hope is that SUPARCO could become (from 2040) an entity that undertakes extensive research and development (R&D) of satellite technology, rocket propulsion, air-breathing engines and other areas of interest to space development and national security. Ultimately, sufficiently meet national needs.

Launched in 2012, Space Vision 2040 is the intermediary step comprising of near-term objectives for national requirements and to position SUPARCO to – in the words of then SUPARCO Chairman, Maj. Gen. (retired) Ahmed Bilal – “make, produce and launch our own [Pakistan’s] satellites.”[2] From 2012 to 2020, SUPARCO should deploy at least three remote sensing satellites (RSS), each of “different types” in terms of “their applications.”[3] However, this is conditional on state-sanctioned requirements, which “will dictate the number of satellites the country needs.”[4] Prior to announcing Space Vision 2040, China had launched the PakSat-1R communications satellite for SUPARCO. PakSat-1R is being used for television broadcasting, telecommunications and secure broadband internet connectivity.[5] Maj. Gen. (retired) Ahmed Bilal had indicated that another communications satellite could be in orbit by 2021.[6]

Pakistan Remote Sensing Satellite (PRSS-1)

Despite the ambitious aspirations of Space Vision 2040, SUPARCO was – and still is today – coldly realistic about its own ability to source the satellites. Pakistan has near-term requirements in the way of national space assets, with new RSS systems scheduled for launch in 2018 – potentially as early as March 2018.[7] In 2016, the Government of Pakistan signed a contract with China Great Wall Industry Cooperation (CGWIC) to produce the PRSS-1.[8] The first RSS – i.e. the Pakistan Remote Sensing Satellite (PRSS-1) – will be Pakistan’s first low-earth orbit (LEO) satellite with multispectral imaging capabilities.[9] This will be achieved with the integration of a synthetic aperture radar (SAR) paired to an electro-optical (EO) system.[10]

SAR systems utilize radio waves to generate high-resolution imagery. In contrast to conventional EO-based methods, such as photography, SAR can provide imagery even in severe weather or darkness.[11] For an understanding of how far China has progressed in terms of space-based SAR, in 2016, the CGWIC had launched the Gaofen-3 imaging satellite with SAR capable of imagery at a resolution of 1 m.[12] The Airbus Defence & Space (Airbus DS) TerraSAR-X has a maximum resolution of 0.25 m[13] – i.e. the Gaofen-3 appears to be a step-short, though it is highly capable (at least in terms of its stated specifications) in its own right.

Pakistan will utilize the PRSS-1 to support a wide array of national development functions, such as (among others) monitoring crops and forecasting crop yields, undertaking environment assessment for potential power/energy programs, land-use mapping and for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR).[14] In a sense, it is unfortunate that Pakistan has to source the PRSS-1 from abroad, but the need for this is currently pressing – sourcing space-based imagery is a strain on the state-exchequer and Pakistan’s hard-currency. Moreover, the service procurable from abroad is not consistently optimal in its output.

When SUPARCO outlined plans for a LEO RSS, Dr. Javed Iqbal – a professor of the University of Karachi’s Institute of Space and Planetary Astrophysics, had stated:

“Currently satellites orbited and piloted by bodies such as NASA only picture Pakistan once every few hours … 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.”

Besides being able to source this vital imagery domestically at a lower cost, SUPARCO will in a position to provide an optimal level of service to all of Pakistan’s state branches requiring the PRSS-1’s output. Thus, the aforementioned tasks that SUPARCO outlined for the PRSS-1 can be carried out effectively.

One will notice that in SUPARCO’s messaging, the potential national security value of the PRSS-1 has not been mentioned or emphasized. This could be an indication of a deliberate policy to detach, at least from a narratives standpoint, national security and its requirements, such as image intelligence (IMINT), from SUPARCO and Space Vision 2040. Of course, the SAR and EO payload could theoretically be – and from a purely rational standpoint, it would be – used for IMINT. However, removing national security as the development aim could be a conscious effort to enable SUPARCO to operate and be perceived as an R&D (and, if it does manufacture its own satellites and provide satellite-launch services) and commercial entity.

It is suspected that the desired outcome is to empower SUPARCO to collaborate with overseas partners, most of which (e.g. South Africa, Turkey, etc) belong to multi-national regulatory bodies – i.e. the Wassenaar Arrangement (WA) and Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR). Yes, joining those bodies is a tall expectation at this stage,[15] but forging bilateral agreements based upon government-to-government trust can be a factor if Pakistan makes it easy for the other side to justify its cooperation with SUPARCO. It is not a guarantee as some key parties, such as the U.S. and India, will naturally assume that SUPARCO has an underlying national security objective, and so they will apply pressure to WA and MTCR members to disengage with Pakistan. China will be Pakistan/SUPARCO’s main partner, but consistency in funding (and funding growth), frequency in research programs and an open civilian-oriented R&D stature can yield valuable (albeit targeted) partnerships in areas such as satellite propulsion, SAR/EO technology, transponder technology (for communications satellites) and joint-ventures (e.g. jointly-owned navigation and location networks analogous to GPS, Galileo and BeiDou).

Development Opportunities

Granted, Pakistan procuring the PakSat-1R and PRSS-1 off-the-shelf from CGWIC is contrary to the goals set in Space Vision 2040. As stated earlier, these systems are near-term necessities and will help Pakistan save on its expenditure (one hopes the savings are passed onto SUPARCO). However, satellites are finite entities, the PakSat-1R and PRSS-1 will need to be supplanted. The general expected lifespan of a LEO (e.g. PRSS-1) is approximately seven years[16] and communications satellite (e.g. PakSat-1R) 12-15 years.[17]

Thus, SUPARCO will have the opportunity to develop and manufacture successor satellites to the PakSat-1R and PRSS-1. In fact, based on the average lifespan of each satellite type, SUPARCO should have at least three opportunities for earth-observation satellites and at least two for communications satellites within Space Vision 2040. Domestic satellite development and production is a necessity for Pakistan to cost-effectively sustain its space presence, which will require it to replace satellites in orbit and, potentially, to also expand its presence should it add communications satellites and navigation satellites (independently or in collaboration with another country).

The relatively short lifespan of satellites makes them expensive pursuits. For example, the Turkish TÜRKSAT 6A communications satellite costs $158 million U.S.[18], while its Göktürk-1 earth-observation satellite (imported from Europe) costs €300 million (i.e. $360 million U.S.).[19] Thales sold the Defence and Strategic Communications Satellite (SGDC) to Brazil for $558.1 million U.S.[20] Granted, the CGWIC satellites are certain to be lower in cost, but total expenditure in these satellites can be amount to at least a billion dollars in hard/foreign-currency outflows through three or four replacement cycles. Given that the cost of space development will also be a concern for other developing countries, Pakistan might see lucrative opportunities for export if SUPARCO can emerge as a solutions provider.

If Pakistan is intent on building a presence in space, then channeling that expenditure into SUPARCO could both position SUPARCO for growth and enable Pakistan to reduce hard-currency outflows. For 2017-2018, SUPARCO has a budget of $31.7 million U.S., a 75% increase of the amount it was given in 2016-2017.[21] It would be unrealistic to see drastic jumps, even if SUPARCO is assigned the task with designing a satellite. In fact, the total cost of satellite procurement is not linked to satellite design and development. The cost of manufacturing separate in that will require suppliers outside of SUPARCO, and – in the foreseeable future – outside of Pakistan. Critical inputs such as satellite propulsion, composite materials and electronic subsystems (for space and for ground support/control equipment) will amount for the majority of the cost of procuring a satellite, and Pakistan is not in a position today to source these domestically.

In effect, space development is not confined to SUPARCO (which could spearhead the R&D and satellite design and development effort), but an entire industry base to also provide the materials and subsystems necessary for the critical inputs. Development in these areas will not occur within SUPARCO’s $31.7 million U.S. budget, nor can SUPARCO be tasked to suddenly expand into materials development, propulsion and electronics. There are few companies in the world with turnkey satellite development and manufacturing capabilities, such as Airbus DS. In Pakistan’s case, space development will require growth in SUPARCO and permeation into other potentially able entities, such as Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC), National Engineering and Scientific Commission (NESCOM), the National Radio & Telecommunication Corporation (NRTC) and others to undertake aerospace design, propulsion development and electronics, respectively.

The theory is in place, but in practice space development will require each of the aforementioned entities to sign-on to the effort. Like the nuclear weapons program before it, space development must evolve into a national narrative. PAC, NESCOM, NRTC and others also have to sign-on, and the impetus for that (along with the support of key decision-makers) needs to emanate from a source. Returning to ACM Sohail Aman and his statements from December 2017, could that source be nationally-sanctioned astronauts? If so, it would be a start, albeit modest in light of the necessary funding required, but a start that Pakistani leaders, journalists and the public can uniformly refer to as the impetus and, ideally one day, the catalyst that had caused a resurrection of Pakistan’s space development program.

[1] “’Pakistan to send astronauts into space in two years’” The Express Tribune. 07 December 2017. URL: (Last Accessed: 31 December 2017).

[2] Salman Siddiqui. “Lagging behind: 2040 – Pakistan’s space od[d]yssey.” The Express Tribune. 01 August 2017. URL: (Last Accessed: 31 December 2017).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] “STAND with SUPARCO.” Space and Upper Atmosphere Research Commission (SUPARCO). Government of Pakistan. URL: (Last Accessed: 31 December 2017).

[6] Ibid.

[7] “Pakistan’s first optical remote sensing satellite to be launched in 2018.” GEO News. 04 October 2017. URL: (Last Accessed: 31 December 2017).

[8] “Pakistan, China sign contract to launch PRSS-1 System.” The News International. 21 April 2016. URL: (Last Accessed: 31 December 2017).

[9] Ibid.

[10] “Pakistan Remote Sensing Satellite (PRSS-1).” Space and Upper Atmosphere Research Commission (SUPARCO). Government of Pakistan. URL: (Last Accessed: 31 December 2017).

[11] “Synthetic Aperture Radar.” Lockheed Martin. URL: (Last Accessed: 31 December 2017).

[12] “China launches hi-res SAR imaging satellite.” Xinhua via China Great Wall Industry Corporation. 10 August 2016. URL: (Last Accessed: 31 December 2017).

[13] “TerraSAR-X.” Airbus Defence & Space. URL: (Last Accessed: 31 December 2017).

[14] “Pakistan’s Space Program.” Space and Upper Atmosphere Research Commission (SUPARCO). Government of Pakistan. URL: (Last Accessed: 31 December 2017).

[15] Discussed in detail in, “Understanding India’s Entry into the Wassenaar Arrangement.” Quwa Premium. 26 December 2017. URL:

[16] Average LEO satellite lifespan extrapolated from Turkey’s GÖKTÜRK-1 LEO satellite, which has a lifespan of seven years. “Turkey launched GÖKTÜRK-1 into space.” Turkish Armed Forces. Government of Turkey. 05 December 2016. URL: (Last Accessed: 31 December 2017).

[17] Average communications satellite lifespan extrapolated from Turkey’s Türksat 6A, which will have a lifespan of 15 years. “Türksat 6A Satellite Moves onto the Production Stage.” Türksat. URL: (Last Accessed: 31 December 2017).

[18] Ibid.

[19] Peter B. de Selding. “Turkey’s Gokturk-1 Reconnaissance Satellite Finally Cleared for Export.” Space News. 23 April 2015. URL: (Last Accessed: 31 December 2017).

[20] Selding. “Brazil Orders Civil-Military Telecommunications Satellite.” Space News. 29 November 2013. URL: (31 December 2017).

[21] Budget in Brief – Federal Budget: 2017-2018. Ministry of Finance. Government of Pakistan. URL: (Last Access: 31 December 2017).

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