For 14 centuries, Muslims have been eyeing Earth’s only natural satellite to decide upon the beginning and ending of their Hijri calendar months, not the least of which to observe the fasting month of Ramadan and the pilgrimage season to Makkah.

With the dawn of the space age, Muslim nations had joined the international community in their interest to put artificial satellites into orbit to serve an increasing range of applications for the benefit of humankind.

On April 17, a new milestone for some Muslim nations has been made, as seven Muslim-owned satellites went into orbit. A Dnepr rocket, a retired soviet-era intercontinental ballistic missile modified to carry commercial cargo to space, launched with the payload from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 6:46 GMT.

Two of these, Egypt-owned MisrSat-1 and Saudi-owned SaudiSat-3, are remote sensing micro-satellites used to photograph Earth, while the remaining five owned by Saudi Arabia, SaudiComSat-3,4,5,6,7, are communication satellites.

Seven other CubSat nano-satellites were also onboard the Dnepr rocket that belong to University projects in the United States and Columbia.

Rocket launching, originally scheduled for March 27, was postponed after an anomaly was discovered in the third stage telemetry harness on the rocket, according to the website of the launching company, ISC Kosmotras. The launch was made possible on Tuesday after the cable was replaced.

Egypt’s First Remote Sensing Satellite

LEO observation satellites will photograph a strip of the Earth equal to their imaging swath with each orbit as with these TANDEM-X satellites.
(© EADS Astrium)

Placed in Low Earth Orbit (LEO), 640 km above Earth, the satellites will circle the planet once every hour and a half. LEO is the region that lies 200 km to 2000 km above Earth where most artificial satellites, including the International Space Station, revolve around Earth.

Dr. Magdy Tantawi, vice president of the Egyptian Space Program, told two hours after the launch that MisrSat-1 has successfully entered orbit and that it has established communication with the control center in the Ukraine.

In a recent interview with, Tantawi said that MisrSat-1 (“Misr” is Arabic for “Egypt”) has a resolution of eight meters and has an imaging swath of 45 km.

As with all LEO observation satellites, MisrSat-1 will photograph a strip of the Earth equal to its imaging swath with each orbit. As the satellite revolves around the Earth on one axis the Earth rotates on another, shifting the scanned strip with each orbit. This eventually allows the satellite to photograph the entire planet as it circles around it, and the software at the ground station works to fit these images together to create the complete picture.

Two ground stations have been established to communicate with MisrSat-1. The first, located in Egypt’s southernmost governorate of Aswan, was completed at the end of 2006 and is dedicated to receiving images from the satellite. Since beginning operations, it has already received images from the American LandSat and the French SPOT satellites.

The other station, still under construction, is located in Al-Tagamo` district in the suburbs of Cairo and will be the base for the satellite’s operations control. Until construction of the station is completed in three months time, the satellite will be operated from a station in the Ukraine.

Small But Steady Steps

The construction and launch of MisrSat-1 is part of a bigger effort by the Egyptian Space Program for the transfer of space technological know-how to Egypt.

Other than just making and launching the Egyptian satellite, the project that was won in a bid by the Ukrainian State Design Office (Yuzhnoye) also included the training of 60 Egyptian scientists and engineers in all stages of satellite design, construction, and operation. Total project costs stand at US$21 million.

The Egyptian Space Program, which was established in 1998 under the umbrella of the National Authority for Remote Sensing and Space Sciences (NARSS), is taking the process one step at a time.

“We wanted to acquire this knowledge from another country that already has it through a specific project in remote-sensing satellites,” said Tantawi. “The satellite would have medium capabilities with the prime objective [of the project] being the transfer of knowledge and technology, along with a secondary objective of making economic gains.”

Using the experience gained in the training of the Egyptian team, Tantawi hopes that 40 percent of MisrSat-2 could be designed and constructed in Egypt. Already on the drawing board, MisrSat-2 should be launched before the five-year lifespan of MisrSat-1 ends.

By 2017, Egypt intends to have launched a third satellite, DesertSat, specialized in identifying and monitoring desert resources.

“We are now a country that has the strategic goal of having a permanent presence in space,” Tantawi asserted. “The benefit that will come out will affect agriculture, urban planning, road [building], flood [management], and [monitoring] coastal erosion and the soil.”

NileSat covers a region extending from Morocco in the West to the Arabian Gulf in the East. (© EADS Astrium)

Although the first in the field of remote sensing, MisrSat-1 is not the first satellite to be owned by Egypt.

Two Egyptian communications satellites are already in orbit, although they are not operated by NARSS. Nilesat 101 and Nilesat 102, launched in 1998 and 2000 respectively, were manufactured by the European company Matra Marconi Space (Astrium) and were launched on board the European Ariane-4 rockets.

According to the Nilesat company website, the Nilesat system is currently broadcasting 150 digital TV channels as well as providing other radio and data transmission services. Nilesat 101 and Nilesat 102 have a life expectancy of 15 years.

Large communication satellites such as Nilesat orbit Earth at the Geostationary Orbit (GEO) of about 36,000 km above Earth. Unlike LEO satellites that rotate at about once every 90 minutes around Earth, GEO satellites remain stationary relative to any single point on Earth as they rotate at the same speed as that of the Earth (once every 24 hours.) This enables the satellite to provide continuous communication with Earth-based transmitters and receivers.

(The third type of orbit, Medium Earth Orbit (MEO), is located between LEO and GEO. Navigation satellites are the most common inhabitants of this region, including the American Global Positioning System (GPS) satellite constellation, the Russian Global Navigation Satellite System (GLONASS) constellation, and the proposed Galileo and Compass constellations to be launched by Europe and China respectively.)

Saudi Program More Developed

Arabsat-1B communications satellite was deployed into orbit by space shuttle Discovery in 1985. (NASA)

While Egypt gains its first experience in managing and operating its own remote sensing program, Saudi Arabia will be building on decades-long experience.

First established in 1987 at the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology (KACST), the Saudi Center for Remote Sensing has been used as a receiving station for data from a range of internationally-owned Earth-monitoring satellites.

The first three LEO satellites Saudi Arabia sent to space were indigenously designed, assembled, and tested at the Satellite Technology Center of KACST.

SaudiSat-1a, 1b, and 1c were simple LEO micro-satellites that included an amateur radio equipment payload that provided store-and-forward communication with their control centers (store-and-forward is a telecommunications technique whereby the satellites would receive a message from the ground, do some processing on it to verify its integrity, store it on board, and later forward it to another station or satellite). Various space experiments are also conducted onboard the satellites. The first two satellites were launched onboard a Dnepr in 2000 while the third, SaudiSat-1c, was launched in 2002.

SaudiSat-2, launched in 2004, was Saudi Arabia’s first remote sensing micro-satellite. It has a resolution of about 15 meters.

The SaudiComSat micro-satellites launched on Tuesday are part of a constellation of 24 store-and-forward telecommunication satellites to be launched in the coming years. SaudiComSat-1 and 2 were launched along with SaudiSat-2 in 2004 on a Dnepr rocket as well.

A LEO communications satellite constellation can form a cheap alternative to GEO communications satellites. Even though LEO satellites are not stationary over a single point on Earth, their large number and continuous communication with one another in LEO can produce the same effect as a stationary satellite in GEO. They are a cheaper alternative because it is easier to place them in LEO orbit and they need less shielding to protect their equipment from the radiation present in GEO. Their closer proximity to Earth also requires less sophisticated and less powerful equipment to communicate with ground stations.

But this does not mean that Saudi Arabia does not own its own GEO satellites. In 1985, Arabsat-1A and 1B were launched onboard an Ariane-3 rocket and the space shuttle Discovery respectively. Arabsat-1A witnessed problems after going into orbit, however, after its solar panel extension malfunctioned, while Arabsat-1B completed its seven-year service life till 1992. (Gunter’s Space Page)

The launch of Arabsat-1B also witnessed the launch of the first Muslim to space, Saudi Prince Sultan bin Salman AbdulAziz Al-Saud.

Arabsat-1C, manufactured by the French company Aérospatiale like its two predecessors, was launched in 1992 onboard an Ariane rocket. It continued to be operated by Saudi Arabia until it was sold in 1997 to the Indian Space Research Organization and became Insat-2DT.

Before selling Arabsat-1C, Saudi Arabia had launched its second-generation Arabsat-2A and 2B satellites in 1996 on board the Ariane-44L H10-3.

According to their website, the Riyadh-based Arab Satellite Communications Organization currently operates a fleet of five satellites: Arabsat-2B, Arabsat-2C (leased from the American PanAmSat Corporation and also known as Badr-C), Arabsat-2D (also known as Hot Bird 5 or Badr-2), Arabsat-3A (also known as Badr-3, launched in 1999 and placed in the same orbit as Arabsat-2A), and Arabsat-4A (also known as Badr-4).

Arabsat-4AR (also known as Badr-6) is set for launch on board an Ariane-5 rocket in 2008. It is being developed by the European company Arianespace.

Whether for commercial use or for local applications, the growing fleets of Egyptian and Saudi satellites reflect a growing ambition by the two nations in utilizing space technology. The years to come will show how well these technologies will be put to local use, however, and how much they will leave their mark on the people of these two important countries in the Muslim world.

By Tamer El-Maghraby*


ISC Kosmotras. Last accessed 18 April 2007.

Nilesat Company. Last accessed 18 April 2007.

Arabsat Company. Last accessed 18 April 2007.

Gunter’s Space Page. Last accessed 18 April 2007.