All-weather allies Beijing and Islamabad signed a series of space exploration agreements at the second Belt and Road Forum last month—including one that may result in Pakistan sending an astronaut into space for the first time.
The agreements indicate growing cooperation between the space agencies of the two countries: the China National Space Administration (CNSA) and Pakistan’s Space and Upper Atmosphere Research Commission (SUPARCO).
China and Pakistan will conduct joint scientific and technological experiments, astronaut training, and manned space expeditions to the “final frontier.” They will also form committees consisting of top officials to oversee future joint space ventures.
In October 2018, former Pakistan information minister Fawad Chaudhry claimed that Pakistan planned to send humans into space with Chinese help by 2022. The statement came on the heels of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi saying that India would send astronauts into space by 2022.
China and Pakistan have strengthened their space partnership over this decade. One key development was in 2012 when Pakistan announced that it was in the process of acquiring a global navigation satellite system from China.
In addition to providing services such as mapping, monitoring, and aviation management, the system will reduce Pakistan’s dependence on Western location-guided missiles and communication systems.
The satellite system will improve existing data systems related to the agriculture and mining sectors. Pakistan’s information technology industry is still in infancy, but an indigenous satellite system would likely boost business opportunities related to space as well.
Beijing has big plans for space and it provides significant advantages for Islamabad’s space program to make up for decades of stagnation. (See our overview of the history of Pakistan’s space program.)
China aims to put up 35 satellites in orbit by 2020. Its third-generation BeiDou navigation satellite system will provide global services to clients, providing including an alternative to America’s Global Positioning System or GPS, Russia’s Global Navigation Satellite System, and the European Galileo systems.
In addition to generating billions of dollars for Chinese aerospace giants, the satellite system will likely have an astounding post-processing accuracy in millimeters—roughly translating to having the ability to distinguish objects as small as one millimeter on earth from images taken in space.
This capability gives other monitoring benefits as well, including to track infrastructure development and the movement of weapons or fleet of hostile nations or territories. BeiDou satellites also include SAR capabilities, which give data analysts on the ground the option to improve the accuracy of received images.
In August 2011, Pakistan announced that it had launched the communications satellite PakSat-IR with the Chinese. The satellite was launched from China on board a Chinese launch vehicle and was expected to go around the earth in a geosynchronous orbit. The satellite was aimed at enhancing the broadcast and broadband capabilities of the country.
The launch was part of Space Program 2040, a Pakistani plan to launch five satellites into geosynchronous and six into low-earth orbits between 2011 and 2040. PakSat-IR was the first of these to go into space, while another, PakSat Multi-Satellite, was procured while already in orbit by early March 2018.
Leveraging friendly ties with China, Pakistan launched a remote-sensing satellite in July 2018. Procured from Beijing, it was sent to space aboard a launch at Jinquan Satellite Center. The satellite will operate in a low-earth orbit and will be used for land mapping, urban planning, and environment monitoring, among a host of other uses.
Under Pakistan’s 2040 plan, six of the planned eleven satellites will be remote sensing satellites, gathering data from the earth or the atmosphere, and sending it back to the ground stations to be processed for various uses. All will need Chinese help—from design and development to launch.
In addition to technology transfer, Pakistan and China also have a strong student exchange program, and many Pakistani scientists and engineers have received training in China. This relationship has strengthened since the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor agreement was signed in 2015. Support from the United States was instrumental in the early gains of Pakistan’s space program, but its future appears to be tied to China’s emergence as a space power.