Industry Desk: With Western sanctions to punish Moscow for the invasion of Ukraine in place, the timely launching of Bangabandhu Satellite-2 by Bangladesh with the help of a Russian firm has become uncertain, according to officials.
The government has now adopted a “wait and see” position over firing the satellite as the Russia-Ukraine war shows no sign of coming to an end anytime soon.
“We wanted to launch the satellite before the next national election in late 2023. But the conflict has jeopardised the plan,” Shahjahan Mahmood, chairman of the state-owned Bangladesh Satellite Company Limited (BSCL) said.
He said the authorities have asked them to wait and observe the situation.
The BSCL and Glavkosmos, a subsidiary of Russia’s state-owned space agency Roscosmos, signed a cooperation contract in February this year for making and launching Bangladesh’s second satellite.
Shahjahan Mahmood said that there has been no progress since the contract signing, while a number of BSCL officials on condition of anonymity said the project will not make any headway until the Western sanctions are lifted. Special chips are required to build and launch satellites. Moscow is unable to import the chips due to the sanctions. Besides, there are bars on global financial transactions with Moscow, making Russia’s isolation on earth also broadening out into space.
Apart from manufacturing and launching the satellite into orbit, Bangladesh’s contract with Russia covers developing satellite ground stations for acquiring earth observation data, commercial orbital flights and consultations.
The main task of the satellite will be observing different parts of the country from space. Officials said Bangladesh needs the satellite as the country in recent years has reclaimed a vast swathe in the Bay that requires monitoring.
They also said the satellite will help better predict floods and acquire data regarding agriculture.
According to the BSCL, the estimated cost of the second satellite is Tk3,707 crore.
In 2018, Bangladesh launched Bangabandhu Satellite-1 through the European aerospace manufacturer Thales Alenia Space. The making and launching of the satellite cost the country around Tk3,000 crore.
Was Russia the right choice?
For launching the satellite, Bangladesh received several proposals from different European and American firms, including the Germany-based Airbus Defence and Space.
In January this year, the United States warned its chip industry beforehand to be prepared for new sanctions on chip exports to Russia.
In June 2021, Dmitry Rogozin, head of Russia’s state-owned space agency Roscosmos, told Moscow that Russia was unable to launch some satellites due to international restrictions on chip imports.
The United States and Europe imposed sanctions on Russia following its annexation of Crimea in 2014.
Russia’s state-owned news agency TASS quoted Rogozin as saying, “We have enough rockets. But we are not in a position to send them into space.”
But Bangladesh picked the Russian space firm, brushing aside increasing concerns over a Russia-Ukraine conflict.
Mustafa Jabbar, minister of posts, telecommunications & information technology, said the government is now observing the situation.
“Following the start of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, we sent Moscow some queries as to whether they would be able to manufacture the satellite for us. They have replied to some of our inquiries and some are still pending,” he said on Tuesday.
After the contract signing in February, the minister said the government chose Russia as the option seemed to be the best for Bangladesh.
“The government has decided to implement the project through the Russian Federation and it is fixed. Russia has huge experience and skills in this field,” he said.
“I think Russia is the best choice for the technology we are now going for,” he added.
Asked whether it was possible to have contracts with multiple manufacturers at the same time, Mustafa Jabbar replied in the negative.
He said the government cannot sign a second memorandum of cooperation (MoC) with others while having such a contract with the Russian firm.
Bangladesh was already running late
According to the political commitment of the ruling Awami League, the second satellite is supposed to make round-ups in space orbit before 2024.
For Bangabandhu Satellite-1, the purchasing agreement with the French company took place 30 months prior to its launch from the US. The memorandum of understanding had been signed even earlier.
But when the country signed the contract with Russia for Bangabandhu Satellite-2, some 20 months were left for the manufacturing and launching of the satellite.
In other words, the project might already miss the national polls deadline even if the Russia-Ukraine war had not broken out.
Minister Mustafa Jabbar agrees that there has already been a delay. “If the conflict did not happen, we might have been able to complete 60%-70% of the work before the next national election.”
OneWeb, a satellite Internet company partly owned by the British government, in March this year cancelled an upcoming satellite launch using a Russian rocket and suspended all future launches that relied on Russia.
The British firm subsequently signed a deal with Elon Musk’s SpaceX, formally Space Exploration Technologies Corp, to provide launch services later this year.
Like OneWeb, some other countries have been turning away from Russia following the barrage of sanctions by the West on Moscow. In retaliation, Russia halted deliveries and effectively seized property from Western customers.
The Russian retaliatory measures, however, have opened the door for US and European firms such as SpaceX, Rocket Lab USA Inc and Arianespace SA to come into the scene.
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