Space is ours (as is the sky)

Feb 09, 2009 (LBO) – It has been announced that the Telecom Regulatory Commission (TRC) is going in to the satellite business. First, they will launch one low earth orbital satellite (LEO) in 2009. Then they will launch a geostationary satellite. That will take two years.

The LEO will be named in honor of the late Sir Arthur C. Clarke.
There is no word on what the geostationary satellite will be called. Eutelsat named a satellite with an Asian footprint after Sir Arthur back in 2000 (and the government website still carries the story). The government may have wanted to avoid any confusion being caused by two satellites with the same name sitting thousands of kilometres apart on the Clarke Orbit.

The reason it’s called the Clarke Orbit is the beauty of the concept Sir Arthur worked up in that 1945 article in Wireless World. One single solitary satellite would just sit in one location, unmoving in relation to the earth. It would be just like a very tall tower, with line of sight over one third of the planet. And it would not need much energy once it got into position, other than for small course corrections.

Naming a LEO after Clarke, whose claim to fame was the geostationary orbit (the Clarke Orbit) is ironic, but this is a government that likes irony. I guess they also thought there’d be nothing novel about a Clarke satellite in the Clarke orbit. A Clarke satellite in low-earth orbit, on the other hand, is a “man bites dog” story.

The Clarke LEO

A LEO is very different from a geostationary satellite. A LEO is not visible to a point on the earth continually like a satellite in the Clarke Orbit. To have continuous connectivity, one would need a whole lot of LEOs and whole lot of coordination.

I heard about LEOs a lot back in 1998 when various people were canvassing the government to be among the first to approve Iridium, a constellation of 66 LEOs. Teledesic also stopped by those days. Having grown up on geostationary orbit stories (I worked at the Arthur C. Clarke Center when Sir Arthur was not ashamed to admit an association with it), I was shocked to hear that Teledesic was planning 840 LEOs.

Sending all these satellites up and then making sure signals were seamlessly handed over as one satellite went over the horizon and another came up seemed utterly complicated and expensive to me. True enough, Iridium went bankrupt and was kept alive only by the grace of the US Department of Defense.

And Teledesic? It went from 840 satellites to 288 and then to one. It had a sugar daddy too, Paul Allen who founded Microsoft with Bill Gates. Allen liked to throw money away on strange things like the solitary Teledesic LEO and the world’s eighth largest yacht. But it was his money and none could complain.

That got me thinking, what was the government going to do with a solitary LEO?

Mr Kariyapperuma of the TRC had explained: “We can use the LEO for imagery and disaster management by collaborating with LEO satellite clusters of other countries.”

The LEO satellite, it had been stated, was essential to monitor Sri Lanka’s territorial seas after expansion of the Exclusive Economic Zone. “Our Exclusive Economic Zone will probably expand this year from 200 nautical miles to about 800 nautical miles. The most efficient and cost effective way to monitor such a large expanse of ocean will be to use the LEO satellite,” Mr. Kariyapperuma was quoted as saying by The Sunday Times of 31 January 2009.

Imagery is pictures. You don’t need continuous connectivity to download pictures, do you? So it captures images of various kinds especially of the exclusive economic zone and transmits them to the TRC when the satellite is visible from Elvitigala Mavatha.

Disaster management was a little more difficult to visualize. We now get warnings of earthquakes in the Sunda trench within minutes for no cost whatsoever, so that cannot be it. Cyclones are tracked by specialized meteorological satellites so that could not be it either.

I guess a LEO will help the government find where the victims are. After the 2004 tsunami we had to send the then Prime Minister and a TV camera up on a helicopter for this purpose. Now with a LEO, the President can look at pictures of disaster victims by just trotting over to the TRC (or they could set up a link, right into Temple Trees).

Collaboration with the other LEO clusters is a truly novel idea. How does one actually collaborate with a cluster? Wait ‘till one fails and scoot the Sri Lankan satellite into the gap? And how do you decide on the software and frequencies?

And all this to be done by the end of 2009 and the satellite placed in orbit? Wow. Is this the TRC that we have all come to know and love?

The yet-to-be-named GEO

Speaking of the second geostationary satellite, Mr Kariyapperuma had stated that “the ‘geo’ can be used for broadcasting, communications and high speed Internet.” It can indeed be used for the first two, but one wonders whether a LKR 11,500,000,000 (11.5 billion) satellite is the highest priority for this little island which seems to be doing pretty well in terms of TV, radio and telecommunications. Satellites are usually required by large continental or archipelagic countries like India and Indonesia.

It is not going to be named for Sir Arthur Clarke, who will have to make do with the LKR 2,300,000,000 (2.3 billion) LEO. So who should it be named for? I have a suggestion.

Mihin Satellite shining in the sky.

Mihin Air has only lost LKR 83 million in 2009; and only LKR 3,200 million before that. Surely, it’s a greater honor for the President to lose large amounts of public money on a satellite named after him than on a budget airline named for him?

And the “ahasa apey” tagline from the Mihin Air campaign can be reused too. Space will truly be ours when we start burning large amounts of Sri Lanka rupees up there.