Pakistan steps forward in astronomy and space sciences

KARACHI: Pakistan’s Space and Upper Atmosphere Research Commission (Suparco), which is often criticised by Pakistani scientific community for not being on par with its Indian or Chinese counterparts, sent two satellites in space from a launching facility in China this July.

A surprise as it may be, one of the satellites launched the PakTES-1A, which was indigenously designed and developed by Pakistani engineers. Primarily aimed at remote sensing, the satellite is providing promising results, meeting or even exceeding expectations, a senior official of Suparco says.

Talking about the development phase of the satellite, the official says that it was a tough task to complete it on time because the launch date had already been fixed and a delay of not even a day could be afforded.

“The other satellite, PRSS-1, developed by China and Pakistan in collaboration, was due to launch on July 9, and PakTES-1A had to be co-launched, thus the Pakistani engineers worked day and night to have it ready by then,” he says.

Big players: China and India

Every year, developed and emerging nations such as the United States, European Union, Japan, China and India cumulatively spend trillions of dollars on technologies to send humans into the space, deploy sophisticated satellites for a variety of purposes, and to find new worlds through space and ground-based telescopes.

In recent times, China and India have emerged as next big players in the space industry.

Suparco sent two satellites in space in July

These countries provide logistical support and launching facilities to many nations who do not possess the necessary infrastructure to do that on their own.

Pakistan, too, has historically relied on China to get its satellites launched into space. Yet to come on par with India in space sciences, Pakistan also lags behind in research related to astronomy with no major astronomical breakthrough coming from indigenous institutions, however, Pakistanis associated with NASA and European Space Agency (ESA) are performing with excellence in their respective fields.

The official says that the non-availability of an indigenous launching facility was not an immediate area of concern. “Currently, we are focusing on developing satellites because we can nevertheless get them launched from another country. This satellite that we have developed is manufactured completely in Pakistan and is providing promising results. Once we are adept in development of satellite technology, we can venture out in other arenas as well,” he says.

Suparco faces hurdles

Conceding the fact that Suparco is behind many regional space agencies, the official said that Suparco had repeatedly faced bureaucratic hurdles to the point of questioning its purpose of existence.

“But we have continued working despite all the budgetary constraints and external red tape. We have scientists who could easily be hired by Nasa and ESA but they are working hard to serve the nation with whatever resources that they have,” he says.

Shift the focus from the public sector efforts in space technology and astronomy, and one sees that the country’s amateur astronomy scene is also vibrant and there are astronomy societies in all major cities, working at their best to spread awareness in masses about the universe with whatever resources and technical expertise that they have.

There are currently astronomy societies in Pakistan’s cities of Karachi, Hyderabad, Lahore, Islamabad, Peshawar and Quetta. These societies were started and are being operated by amateur astronomers — enthusiasts who have little to no professional education in astronomy but are guided by their love for the universe.

Biggest telescope

Founded in 2008, the Karachi Astronomers Society is a society that is known for owning one of the biggest private telescopes in Pakistan. Chaired by a retired combat pilot of Pakistan Air Force Khalid Marwat, the society organises star parties for the public at different public places of the city, and sometimes the group also ventures out to dark skies for having a better view of the skies as compared to the massively light-polluted skies of the city of the lights.

The society has an 18-inch diameter telescope which is a prized possession of the society’s chairman Mr Marwat. Apart from that, Mehdi Hussain, former president of the society and an IT expert by profession, has built an astronomical observatory at his home’s rooftop. Named Kaastrodome (Karachi Astronomical Dome) the observatory is fitted with a 12-inch diameter telescope. The dome was built locally in Karachi and was supervised and funded privately by Mr Hussain and his brother Akbar Hussain, who also shares the same interest.

Karachi also is home to Pakistan’s biggest telescope, a 24-inch diameter telescope that is owned by astronomy enthusiast Naveed Merchant. This telescope is bigger than any other private or public telescope in Pakistan.

Moon’s photograph

Recently, the society gained much attention after a photograph of the Moon by one of its members, Talha Zia, made it to NASA’s website Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD).

Mr Zia’s photograph was the first from Pakistan to make it to the prestigious listing of carefully selected astrophotos from around the world. 150 kilometres to the north of Karachi, the city of Hyderabad has its own astronomy society, the Hyderabad Astronomical Society.

The now-dormant society was founded by a group of students of Isra University including Amjad Nizamani and Zeeshan Ahmed on the eve of World Space Week 2011. This was the first-ever session on astronomy in the city and gained much media attention. The society also collaborated with Suparco to organise observing sessions at the Mehran University of Engineering and Technology (MUET) in Jamshoro, a city next to Hyderabad for the World Space Week 2012.

The Lahore Astronomical Society (LAST) is also among the most well-equipped astronomy societies of the country. Headed by Umair Asim, an educator who is also a keen astrophotographer himself, the society regularly organises public lectures on a variety of scientific topics. Mr Asim, too, has an astronomical observatory at his home. Dubbed as Zeds Astronomical Observatory, this facility houses sophisticated tools of astrophotography through which Mr Asim regularly captures eye-catching views of the heavens.

Future of astronomy

Back in Karachi, Zain Ahmed, amateur astronomer, a member and former general secretary of KAS is optimistic about future of astronomy — amateur and professional — in Pakistan.

Highlighting the advancement of amateur astronomy societies over the years, he said that amateur astronomy had acquired a ‘critical mass’ in Pakistan, and now the momentum would only grow exponentially.

“In 2018, we have a lot more people who are enthusiastic about astronomy than in 2008 when KAS was founded,” he says, “we are also more equipped than before,” he adds.

But these efforts are not only limited to observational astronomy and space technology. Earlier this year, astronomy societies in Lahore and Karachi invited a group of experts from Netherlands for a series of workshops on astrolabe, a medieval scientific tool that was pioneered by Arab astronomers, who used it to catalog thousands of stars.

The Karachi series of workshops was hosted by Habib University in collaboration with the KAS, and was attended by a large number of people. Similarly, a Pakistani astrobiologist based in Germany, Dr Nozair Khawaja, has launched a group to promote astrobiology in Pakistan.

Khawaja, who hails from town of Wazirabad in Punjab, has recently led a study on one of Saturn’s moons, discovering large and complex molecules on Enceladus, which have astro-biological potential.

Khawaja’s group, the Astrobiology Network of Pakistan has many Pakistani youngsters as its members and office-bearers, aims to attract more people towards the branch of science that deals with finding components necessary for life outside the earth.

Published in Dawn, September 24th, 2018



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