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Volume 36, Number 2March/April 1985

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Arabsat - the Launch

Written by Yasar Durra and John Christie
Additional reporting by Arthur Clark
Additional photographs by RFO

As this report on the Arab world's entry into independent spaceborne communications went to press, a NASA spokesman confirmed published reports that an Arab payload specialist is expected to join the American space shuttle Discovery tor the launch of a second Arab telecommunications satellite later this year, probably in mid-June. He will be the first Arab in space.

— The Editors

At 8:22 p.m. on February 8, the massive engines of an Ariane launch vehicle coughed, caught and fired. Seconds later the great missile rocketed into the black skies above the jungles of French Guiana and on a tail of pulsing flame climbed into space with its vital cargo: Arabsat-A, the Arab world's first communications satellite.

Since then, Arabsat-A, commanding a swathe of the earth from the Strait of Hormuz to Mauretania from an altitude of 35,900 kilometers (22,308 miles) on the 19th degree of latitude, has passed its initial "In-Orbit Test" (IOT), and on February 28 the ground station at Dirab, in Saudi Arabia, began to receive Arabsat's first transmissions. To mark the occasion, a reception was held at the station with Dr. Alawi Darwish Kayyal, the kingdom's Minister of Post, Telecommunications and Telegraph, and the director general of the Arab Satellite Communications Organization, Dr. 'Ali al-Mashat attending.

In effect, the reception celebrated an important milestone in modern Arab history. As Dr. Kayyal put it in French Guiana after the launch, Arabsat is "a success story in every respect," not only because 22 Arab countries agreed on a project of this magnitude, but also because it is a successful example of how modern technology can be transferred to the Arab world.

There is little doubt that improvements in communications are needed in the Arab world. As Dr. Kayyal said at a recent broadcasters' meeting, "the need for phenomenal speed in communicating information is a...feature of our age."

Telecommunication services in many parts of the Arab world simply have not kept pace, however, with rapid development in every other walk of life. At one point, not long ago, it was easier to place a call to New York than to a neighboring Arab capital.

Arabsat, therefore, will play a key role in the future. According to Dr. al-Mashat, "...rapid economic growth, increasing cultural exchanges and the awareness of the Arab people of...their role on the international scene...have created the need for advanced, reliable communication systems capable of meeting the requirements of the various Arab countries, in terms of telephone, telegraph, Telex and information exchange in addition to television and radio requirements."

To a large extent the new system will meet those needs. Arabsat will provide all 22 Arab League countries with more than 8,000 telephone circuits and eight regional and domestic television channels - including a Community Television Channel.

Basically, the launch was engineered by Arianespace, the company responsible for the commercial operations of the 11-nation European Space Agency (ESA), creator of the Ariane rocket. A second Arabsat - Arabsat-B - will be carried into space aboard the United States' upcoming Space Shuttle flight from Cape Canaveral.

Overall responsibility for the Arabsat, however, is in the hands of the Arab Satellite Communications Organization, set up by the Arab League in 1976 and headquartered in Saudi Arabia. One of Arabsat's goals was to encourage research in space communication industries, but Arabsat's capacity should also stimulate inter-Arab commercial activity and encourage the development and growth of pan-Arab companies. Indeed, the Arab businessman of the 1980's, with his microcomputers and instant communications, will soon be looking back with disbelief at the days when he had to stand in a long queue at the local post office to send a telegram. Instead he will soon be able to turn on, for example, a facsimile transmitter and send documents from Jiddah to Tunis in minutes.

Rural areas in the Arab world will benefit in a different way. Shortages of qualified physicians will be eased because sophisticated telephone and television services will enable remote areas to draw on resources in large medical centers such as slow-scan video and audio lines.

Arab universities are also interested in exploiting Arabsat benefits. As far back as 1977, the Union of Arab Universities sent out a questionnaire to investigate the potential uses of the Arab space network and, according to Sa'ud Dahlawi, director general of Gulfvision, many universities, hoping to stimulate the activities of universities throughout the Arab world, called for more studies to implement the idea.

Since such possibilities have excited communications ministries throughout the Arab world, there is a broad consensus among Arab policy makers that the new space network should be given all the support it needs. The minister of information in Iraq, Latif Naseef Jassim, emphasized Iraq's support of the project when he spoke to a visiting delegation from the United Nations Educational, Social and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). "This is a national strategic project which realizes the national ambitions of the Arab people..." he said.

Tariq Almoayed, Bahrain's Minister of Information, made it clear too that his country expected a cultural and educational impact. "The new facility should be used for educational purposes despite the fact that such programs require urgent efforts," he said.

Similar enthusiasm regarding use of "community television" for adult education has been expressed by Musa'ad al-Rawi, the head of an Arab organization set up to cope with illiteracy and promote adult education. He proposed that new TV capacities be used to establish three "open universities" - i.e. televised classes open to all. The three would be the "Arab University, the Pajestine University and the Gulf University," he said. Such education is urgently needed, he added, because conventional Arab universities may not be able to absorb the masses of high school graduates now coming along.

Dr. Sa'ad Labib, a veteran Arab broadcaster who currently runs a mass communication consultancy in Cairo, also calls for adult education on the community television channel. "Such programs," he says, "would concentrate on developing badly needed professional skills and highlight the individual's role in society."

Arabsat will also affect newspapers. As Sa'id Hammoudi, the editor of the Iraqi daily Al Thawrah and the president of the Arab Journalists Union said, Arabsat can be used to print different editions of Arab newspapers simultaneously in different parts of the Arab world. He said that Al Thawrah is exploring this possibility.

This, he continued, is not new in the Arab world. Algeria has been using the Intelsat network - the International Satellite Organization, a global satellite system used by Arab countries - to print editions of its national newspaper in different parts of the country, and the Saudi international daily Al Sharq Al Awsat prints editions in several Arab and European capitals simultaneously. Intelsat is a private, international and commercial venture which has been sending up satellites since the 1960's and most of the 22 Arab League countries have access to it already. The new technology will probably expand readership, he said, and also improve the quality of journalism as a whole since to compete on a national and international scale, Arab newspapers will have to broaden their coverage.

Arabsat's seven-channel television capacity could have an economic impact as well. It might save millions of dollars of expensive hardware needed to achieve full signal coverage in various Arab countries: the big, costly ground antennae that are still required to pick and read signals from a satellite. Although land links will still be crucial, Arabsat signals will be able to reach remote regions through small ground antennae to be constructed in rural or desert areas.

Large metropolitan areas will continue to use ground stations with large antennae: 11 meters in diameter (36 feet); they handle heavy trunk-route telephone traffic, and originate and receive television transmissions. Other urban ground stations, employing antennae of the same diameter, will serve smaller cities; they will handle telephone traffic, and receive, but not originate, television transmissions. In addition, mobile ground stations using antennae 1.6 meters in diameter (five feet) will be used for emergency communications.

Another type of small ground station will be needed for television reception in remote locations; the antennae of such ground stations will be four and a half meters in diameter (15 feet). For community television, what is called "down-link reception" will be provided by small, receive-only ground stations with antennae three meters in diameter (10 feet).

Arabsat's ground-control network consists of a satellite control center (SCC), where orbit-injection operations are carried out, and where the satellites will be monitored and controlled throughout their 11-year lifetime, plus the primary telemetry, telecommand and control ground station (TTC), which maintains permanent contact with both the SCC, via micro-wave links, and with the satellite via large transmitting and receiving antennae. Both stations are located in the Riyadh area, with a secondary TTC in Tunis; this station is capable of temporarily replacing the facilities in Riyadh.

Arabsat, it should be said will complement other satellite links rather than compete with them. The satellite, for example, will not be in competition with the Intelsat system, because Intelsat will continue in use for international - as opposed to regional - communications.

Arabsat can also be used to link microcomputers and main-frame computers, to facilitate library services, electronic mail, instant data retrieval, financial services, airline bookings - all on a large scale.

Then there's science. With Arabsat, scientists in Arab countries will be able to undertake joint scientific research for the first time in centuries - as Dr. Muhammad Abdo Yamani, the former Saudi minister of information, reminded a media conference in Riyadh. Arabs, he said, should not forget the avant-garde role they played in developing the science of astronomy. "We must remember our pioneering role in ... astronomy and what our scientists have contributed to...the general foundations of these sciences."

Dr. Yamani specifically mentioned Abul Husayn al-Razi, "who monitored more than 1,000 stars and presented comprehensive studies on them," as well as Abul Qasim al-Majriti, who excelled in mathematics and astronomy.

To design, build and launch the three-satellite Arabsat system, the Arab countries turned to an international consortium headed by France's key space contractor, Aerospatiale, and including U.S., German, Italian and Japanese corporations and agencies: the Ford Aerospace Communications Corporation (FACE), McDonnell Douglas, AEG Telefunken, Nippon Electric Company, Ltd., Selenia Spazio, Bertin and NASA.

What the corporations came up with was a design derived from what is called a "body-stabilized configuration," a design more efficient and competitive than the "spin-stabilized" satellites. The body-stabilized configuration, moreover, allows the most efficient and direct use of power generating elements, and the three-axis control system is totally autonomous - requiring no continuous interaction with the ground, thus simplifying the mission operations.

On the ground, Arabsat weighs approximately 1,200 kilograms (2,640 pounds). It has two solar-drive assemblies with a wing span of 20.7 meters (68 feet) and 20,000 solar cells to provide energy.

The Arabsat spacecraft is a medium size, multi-mission satellite. Called the "Spacebus 100," it is the first of a new generation of telecommunications satellites developed by Aerospatiale and its partners for regional and domestic systems.

The primary structure consists of a graphite-epoxy, honeycombed central cylinder, to carry the transponders and also house the propellant tanks. Equipment for both payload and service modules is placed on panels composed of light framing, with either light alloy or graphite-epoxy skins.

During the launch, the satellite was located at the top of the launch vehicle, but at the third stage, it was reoriented, with the solar array wings partially deployed and the spacecraft, through use of an earth sensor, was stabilized, while gyroscopes inside stopped it from rolling. The solar array is fully deployed in orbit.

With the first satellite in space and functioning - and a back-up satellite about to be loaded aboard a NASA space shuttle for an upcoming launch - the Arabsat organization has solved the most difficult of its technological problems. And though other problems - financial and administrative - still await discussions and solutions before the full potential of Arabsat linkage can be realized, the future for Arab communications is promising. As the Economist Intelligence Unit put it, "With the launch of Arabsat, the Middle East is poised to join the West in the revolution in information technology that has characterized the past five years."

"Everything you can handle with telecommunications," Dr. al-Mashat said, "Arabsat can handle too - telephones, Telex, data transmission and television. Arabsat will complement all existing communications networks."

What this means in specific terms is as varied as the people who will be affected - the tens of millions of inhabitants spread across 13.7 million square kilometers (5.3 million square miles) - who have always been linked by tradition and now will be linked by technology too.

Yasar Durra, an executive with United Press International Television News (UPITN), has followed the development of satellites for broadcasting for more than 12 years, and has produced several multi-origin programs using satellites. He is also involved in the development of news exchanges in the Arab world.

Arabsat: A Dream Fulfilled
Written by Arthur Clark
Photographed by RFO
Additional photographs by UPI Television News and Video Graphics

For Dr. 'Ali al-Mashat and the Arab League space team, the February 8 launch of the first Arab satellite - Arabsat-A - was a dream come true, a dream they had worked toward for seven years.

Dr. al-Mashat, director general of the Arab Satellite Communications Organization, and the man who nicknamed the project "Arabsat", a name now applied to the satellites as well as the organization, was picked by the 22-state Arab League in 1978 to spearhead the project.

An Iraqi from Baghdad, with family roots in Makkah (Mecca) in Saudi Arabia, Dr. al-Mashat seemed a logical choice for director when the Arabsat organization was created in 1976. A professor of telecommunications at the University of Baghdad, he had served as chairman of the 1969 Arab League committee to study satellite usage in the Arab world and had Space Conference in Amman in 1972.

Dr. al-Mashat was not the first Arab to make important contributions to the use of space. In the 1970's, Farouk El-Baz of Egypt, a geology-trained space scientist, was the man who picked the exact spot where the first astronauts were to land on the moon (See Aramco World, November-December 1976).

Dr. al-Mashat and his 65-man team of engineers and technicians, all recruited from throughout the 22 Arab League states, are pioneers nonetheless. "Everyday, even every hour, we faced new surprises and ... conditions," Dr. al-Mashat said in an Aramco World interview.

The job, moreover, didn't end with the launch of Arabsat-A. Since then, Dr. al-Mashat and his crew have focused their attention on such challenges as the upcoming Cape Canaveral space shuttle flight. Under a contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) the famous Discovery is scheduled to carry Arabsat-B, the backup for the Guiana-launched satellite, and launch it into orbit too.

This kind of cooperation with NASA and the European Space Agency is important to a secondary Arabsat interest: the transfer of technology from the West to the Arab world. It's a "benefit we depend on," Dr. al-Mashat said. "The objective is to make use of this technology to educate - technically educate - experienced engineers... We have sent people to be trained in Japan, France and the United States ... and have training courses in the kingdom." And Arab League experts have been eager participants in the space shuttle and ESA Ariane flights either "on the line" or at the launch site before, during and after every shot.

This does not mean, Dr. al-Mashat said, that Arab League technicians will be able to build and launch satellites themselves in the immediate future. "One should be realistic," he said: "... even in Europe there are only two or three places which can manufacture satellites..."

Nonetheless, Arabsat experience provided golden opportunities for Arab scientists and engineers. Indeed, Dr. al-Mashat and his staff have successfully handled technical problems that would have challenged the best scientific minds in the world, and the results will be of immeasurable value to the Arab world.

This article appeared on pages 10-17 of the March/April 1985 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for March/April 1985 images.