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Thursday, July 18, 2024

A Pioneer with Cracked Space Exploration Policy— Is the Hope Still Alive for Pakistan?

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Pakistan’s inaugural lunar mission on May 3rd, 2024, has generated nationwide excitement, providing a much-needed boost to the country’s space program. As the world prepares to co-habitat Mars and send humans back to the Moon, Pakistan’s space journey has just started, and it’s about time!

Are we late to the Space Race?

Pakistan was one of the pioneers in space technology in South Asia in the 1960s. Pakistan’s space exploration agency, The Space & Upper Atmosphere Research Commission, SUPARCO, established in 1961— began its space journey by launching groundbreaking satellites lBadr-I.  

Pakistan manufactured the first domestic satellite in 1985, followed by Badr-II in 2001, Paksat-1R in 2011, and the revolutionary PRSS-1 & PAK TES-1A in 2018. The launch of ICUBE-Q in 2024 is the first time when a Pakistani satellite will collect samples from the far side of the moon!

Pakistan manufactured the first domestic satellite, Badr-I, in 1985
Pakistan manufactured the first domestic satellite, Badr-I, in 1985.

Our neighboring countries- like China and India- have a successful lunar mission history and a vibrant space industry. As Pakistan works towards realizing its vision for the 2040 space program, it currently relies on international partnerships for space missions due to economic limitations and the early stage of development of its space industry. Having forefathers like Dr. Abdus Salam, Dr Abdul Qadir Khan, and Dr Tariq Mustaf, the nation has failed to produce more such visionaries for decades.

The lack of education and economic challenges are some of the basic hindrances in Paksitan’s space exploration program. Despite the challenges, Pakistan has become the sixth country to launch its first-ever moon satellite: iCube Qamar.

Getting the Basics Right

With the advancement in space exploration and striving to achieve sustainable development goals, it has become even more significant to have a strong focus on the space policy for national security and human development.

According to statistics released by the Higher Education Commission of Pakistan (HEC), over one million students are presently pursuing Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) education in universities and degree colleges. On the contrary, UNICEF data reveals an alarming 22.8 million aged 5-16 are out of school.

The literacy rate lies at a mere 58 percent of the total population, and it is good to know that many are pursuing STEM education. It is worth mentioning that Pakistan’s science, technology, and innovation sectors are gradually progressing, with the government focusing on more robust policies and implementation of STIs, but the advancement in space technology and exploration is still not in the spotlight.

The literacy rate of Pakistan lies at a mere 58 percent of the total population. Credit: World Bank
The literacy rate of Pakistan lies at a mere 58 percent of the total population. Credit: World Bank

Space exploration stimulates innovation, encourages global cooperation, and sparks the imagination of future scientists and engineers, fueling economic progress and enriching our standard of living.

The Need for Space Exploration

Although space exploration is a big-budget venture, it yields tangible advantages for life on Earth. Innovations crafted for space missions, such as satellite communication and Earth observation, enhance everyday tasks like communication, navigation, and disaster management. 

The National Science, Technology, and Innovation Policy 2022 includes only a brief overview of the importance of the inclusion of space technology in the science policy, mentioned as an emerging technology, that doesn’t really do justice to the agenda.

Astronomy education is not deeply integrated into the curriculum, with no specific school courses dedicated to the subject. Basic concepts are introduced at different levels, such as the Solar system and eclipses in primary education and topics like Newtonian gravity and Special relativity in secondary and higher secondary school.

Pakistan has only three planetariums in Lahore, Peshawar, and Karachi, only the one in Karachi is functional, operating under Pakistan International Airlines.

Moreover, Insufficient funding stands as a primary obstacle for SUPARCO; with a budget of only USD26 million for 2023, the agency operates within limited financial means compared to its competitors like the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), which enjoys an annual budget exceeding 1.5 billion USD. 

According to BBC Urdu, Dr. Khurram, a member of the “iCubeQamar” mission team, highlights that while SUPARCO is persistently striving in Pakistan, students entering this field often lack special recognition and face limited opportunities within the country.

Pakistan’s Minister for Planning, Development, and Special Initiatives, Ahsan Iqbal, recently met with the SUPARCO Chairman, underscoring the significance of space exploration for Pakistan’s advancement. Ahsan Iqbal recommended bolstering the capabilities of the Institute of Space Technology and the National Center of Excellence for Satellite and Geographic Information Systems (GIS).

Furthermore, he proposed the creation of a space museum at the Narowal Learning Center aimed at promoting science education among children.

The Hope is Still Alive!

Despite the challenges, Young Entrepreneurs and Space enthusiasts in Pakistan are working tirelessly to revive its space industry. The latest triumph of students from Pakistan’s Institute of Space Science and Technology (ISST) in building the payload ICUBE- Qamar onboard the Chang’e 6 mission.

The design and development of ICUBE-Q are a collaborative effort between IST faculty and students, Pakistan’s national space agency SUPARCO, and China’s Shanghai Jiao Tong University (SJTU).

The launch of ICUBE-Q in 2024 is the first time when a Pakistani satellite will collect samples from the far side of the moon! Credit: IST
The launch of ICUBE-Q in 2024 is the first time when a Pakistani satellite will collect samples from the far side of the moon! Credit: IST

While talking to Samaa TV, Dr. Rahman Mehmood, Director of the Small Satellite Technology project, expressed that observing our neighboring countries and numerous others making significant strides in space exploration motivated us to focus on technological advancement as well.

The launch of this iCube Qmar was made possible by collaborative efforts of students at IST and Shanghai University says prof Khurram Khurshid on Kainaati Chai. Nearly seventy students at IST, along with fifteen students from Shanghai University, worked on this project.

These students were from diverse STEM backgrounds like mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, aerospace engineering, avionics, and computer science. These efforts and dedication will help pave the way for future collaboration and opportunities between China and Pakistan. 

Efforts to spread Space education in Pakistan

Outside the classroom, a few amateur astronomical societies in Pakistan support astronomy education in major urban cities like Islamabad, Lahore, and Karachi. Private entities like Taqwa Observatory, Kastrodome, ZED, and Eden Observatories contribute significantly to promoting astronomy. Exploration Classroom by Yumna Majeed organizes hands-on learning opportunities for kids about space using telescopes and space meteorites. 

Khawarizmi Society is also renowned for organizing STEM-based events, including Science Melas and mobile planetariums. Rah-e-Qamar helps organize events like NASA Space App Challenges and the International Astronomical Union’s citizen scientists programs with the collaboration of space enthusiasts and science societies. 

In Addition, SUPARCO also has a space education and awareness drive named SEAD Program that actively organizes space-related contests and activities in schools and universities nationwide. 

Pakistan ranked as the third nation for organizing 7,836 events for the celebration of World Space Week (Oct 4-10, 2023). Most of these events were student-led, depicting their commitment and passion for space exploration and awareness. 

We are collectively enhancing our comprehension of space sciences and technology by participating in such events and discussions on social media, in classrooms, and within our homes. Pakistan can carve out a significant role in the global space community through continued investment in STEM education, policy reforms, and international collaborations.

References:

More from the author: https://scientiamag.org/siri-paye-and-saturns-moon-enceladus-share-a-significant-life-component/

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