BAKU – It’s a site in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by brown hills and plains. About 45 kilometres northwest of Baku, five kilometres from the Gobustan village and its world-renowned caves on the Absheron peninsula, we take a turn off the Baku-Shamaka highway to reach a meteor-struck-like futuristic building that is part of the Azercosmos Main Satellite Ground Control Station.
The complex on 10 hectares of land consists of the main building, technical building, entry station and covered autopark.
The idea of project is that a heavenly body flies down from the space and strikes a rock and tears it into four pieces. Huge antennas nearby are reminiscent of the Hollywood film Contact, starring Jodie Foster.
Engineers picked this site because it meets the tight requirements of satellite manufacturers. There is a no-fly zone so there is no interference with the satellite control station.
On 8 February, Azerbaijan put its first telecommunications satellite, Azerspace-1, into orbit.
Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev watched the launch live from the new headquarters of Azercosmos that the head of State inaugurated earlier the same day. Azercosmos is the first satellite operator in Azerbaijan and the Caucasus.
In 2008, a presidential decree set up a national space programme. In the meantime, the Ministry of Information and Communications Technologies came to an agreement with Measat Satellite Systems, the leading satellite operator in Malaysia, to lease the GEO position at 46°E orbital slot and jointly operate the Azerspace/Africasat-1A.
In 2009 several tenders were launched and as a result the US-based Orbital Sciences Corporation was opted to construct the satellite along with the French Arianespace to launch it. Azerspace-1 blasted off aboard Ariane 5 rocket made by France’s Arianespace.
Azerspace-1 satellite offers telecommunication services to Europe, the Caucasus, Central Asia and Africa, providing digital broadcasting, Internet access, data transmission, creation of VSAT multiservice networks and communications. Some 20% of the satellite`s resources will be used for Azerbaijan’s needs, and the remaining 80% will be available for commercial purposes.
The launch of the spacecraft means that all of the territory of Azerbaijan will be covered with quality TV and radio broadcasting, and high-speed IP services.
“Now 20% of the capacity is enough for Azerbaijan but the country is growing rapidly so maybe in the following years the capacity requirements will probably increase and we may need approximately 40% of the capacity,” Azercosmos Corporate Advisor Rovshan Rustamov tells New Europe at the site.
Azercosmos Satellite Operations Group leader Dunay Badirkhanov notes that the ground control station has been operational since 8 February. “From the date of the launch, we started to monitor the Azerspace-1 satellite using our ground equipment and putting in shifts our satellite controllers and after the satellite was handed to us we also started to command it in accordance with manufacturers’ procedures. We are working together with some consulting companies to improve our operations,” he says.
This is the primary Satellite Control Facility for operating and managing Azerspace-1 and other satellites to be launched in the upcoming years. There is also a backup centre in the landlocked Nakhchivan autonomous republic of Azerbaijan and another backup centre in Malaysia.
More than 50 people work in the main ground station, including 25 engineers trained in satellite operations. “As we expand number of our satellites, it is expected that we will expand our personnel and also the capabilities of our ground stations,” Badirkhanov says.
The personnel are prepared to face any kind of challenge. “We don’t like surprises in these kinds of operations,” he quips.
He explains that during the eclipse period, when the earth goes between the sun and the satellite, the satellite cannot use its solar panels and uses batteries.
Describing the process as we tour the facilities, he notes that “the interesting thing here is to get the data from the satellite and analyse it in order to have some feeling of the space environment because you cannot see it from here, you cannot touch it but getting all these data from satellite you will try to feel it, how a satellite feels there”.
Alongside the first telecommunications satellite, plans are already in place to launch a low earth orbiting satellite and the second telecommunications satellite, Azerspace-2, in the years to come.
“We have recently completed the RFP process for the first earth observation satellite and in the following days or next month we will announce the tender for the earth observation satellite,” Rustamov says.
Meanwhile, Azercosmos and Azerbaijan’s state oil company SOCAR completed in May an oil spill monitoring grand project with the help of MDA company of Canada, the operator of Radarsat 2 satellite.
Azerbaijan has been attaching a solid and intensive importance to the establishment and development of the national space industry during the past few years.
Azercosmos has set a target to be among the key players of the regional satellite-related services market.
ICT has become the second most profitable sector in Azerbaijan’s economy and the government has put its development at the forefront of its agenda as the former Soviet republic seeks to become an ICT hub for the region. President Ilham Aliyev declared 2013 the “Year of ICT”, launching a plethora of measures and programmes for further development of the sector.