Why is Syria launching a space program during a civil war?

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Dr. Mariel Borowitz looks into Syria's move into space-related research:

Syria's interest in a space agency may be practical or symbolic. Space technologies can provide some practical benefits for nations, even those that are less developed. Communications satellites can be used to provide connections in remote areas - whether for telemedicine, tele-education, or other uses. (For example, theIndian Space Research Organization - ISRO - has invested in these types of technologies.) Earth observation satellites can be used for environmental studies, land use planning, disaster management/ disaster relief, among other uses. Organizations like NASA SERVIR exist to encourage nations to use satellite remote sensing data to solve national challenges, and other nations develop indigenous remote sensing satellites for the same purpose. Satellite remote sensing data can also be used to monitor conflict, particularly if thedata is high-resolution. For example, Amnesty International has used satellite data to monitor shelling in Syria. In addition to the practical benefits of data use, a space agency can also help to increase the science and technology capacity of a nation, as individuals are trained to work with this data, and as new and improved applications are developed.

The Syrian government may also be hoping to get some symbolic benefit from the development of a space agency. Space activities generally involve advanced science and technology; participating in these activities may provide a sense of technological advancement, even at a time of crisis. Participation in space activities is often seen as a source of prestige for a nation.

I don't know of any precedent for creating a space agency during a civil war. However,the original space race between the Soviet Union and the United States took place during the cold war, and was used as a source of technological prestige and competition. Demonstrating space capabilities was seen as representative of military or economic power. Syria could be hoping to get a similar prestige benefit from the creation of its space agency.

Whether or not a space agency is feasible depends significantly on what Syria hopes to accomplish with its space agency. However, I would say it is possible, as space activities are actually very scalable. At the least, a country can benefit from even a very small agency (a few space experts) by participating in international organization like the UN Committee on Peaceful Uses of Outer Space - ensuring that their nation has a voice in these fora. A small space agency may also benefit from focusing on how to use existing data from other nations' space assets for their own benefit (for example, all of NASA's Earth observation data is freely available - this could be used by Syrian scientists or others for environmental research, land use planning, etc.). Both of these activities would require very few people and a very small investment. (Small agencies are not uncommon - for example, Ecuador's space agency had 7 employees in 2012, Portugal had 5, Mexico had 50. There are a number of space agencies that invest less than 10 million per year in their space activities.)

If Syria decided to invest more, they could follow the trend of Nigeria, Turkey, Algeria, and other nations that have developed small national satellites for practical uses - usually Earth observation or communications satellites - usually by contracting with another organization or country. Both SSTL in the United Kingdom and the Great Wall Company in China have worked with other nations to develop relatively simple satellites while also training engineers from the purchasing nation. More advanced satellite development, exploration, or launch capabilities would require much larger programs - both in terms of people and funding - and seem much less practical for Syria. So, a small program focused on participation in international organizations and/or application of existing space-based data to Syrian issues would likely be feasible - development of more advanced satellites or launch vehicles significantly less so.

Additional Information

Groups

Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts, Sam Nunn School of International Affairs, Center for International Strategy, Technology, and Policy (CISTP)

Categories
Aerospace, Student and Faculty
Keywords
Borowitz, CISTP, INTA, space, Syria
Status
  • Created By: Vince Pedicino
  • Workflow Status: Published
  • Created On: Mar 24, 2014 - 8:53am
  • Last Updated: Oct 7, 2016 - 10:27pm