It is barely three and a half decades since the Soviet Sputnik entered orbit in 1957. It was taken that space, long regarded as the last frontier, began to be thought of as the newest area of human dominion. A glance at the history of the ‘space age’ reveals that it was proclaimed from the outset that space would not be subject to national appropriation, would not became an arena for new colonization and international conflict; rather, the interests of mankind as a whole would prevail over all national and private interests (1967 Outer Space Treaty, Articles 2-4).
This universalistic spirit is explicit in Article I/l of the 1967 Space Treaty: ‘The exploration and use of outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries… and [outer space] shall be the province of all mankind’. Two years after the Treaty was formally signed, the American astronauts broadcast the same message from the moon. When Neil A. Armstrong landed on the moon, he saw the new frontier as open not only to space-faring states, but to all mankind: ‘one small step for man, leap for mankind.’
In the quarter century since then, the rapid growth of aerospace technology, thanks to the Cold War between the then two super powers, has led to remarkable achievements and technological spin-offs. However, for most of that period space technology and science were largely focused or directed to the production of weapons of mass destruction. The end of the Cold War should herald a new era in which existing aerospace technology will only be used for ‘the benefit of all mankind’ and only ‘for peaceful purposes’ (Walter, 1985, pp.l20).
In the new post Cold War the Russians and the Americans, once rivals, have begun to pool their brain power and hardware with the aim of building space stations in orbit around the earth, then on the moon, finally on Mars (Time, 19 April 1993, pp.62-3). The European Space Agency (ESA) has already laid down its long-term space programmes that are to lead Europe’s space efforts into the 21st century (Von der Dunk, 1989, p.426). Japan, China, Brazil, India, Israel and even Australia have achieved significant satellite technology and launching capability through independent efforts (for an account of those programmes, see Gatland, 1989). They all aim to explore and exploit the natural resources and potential usage of space.
Within ‘peaceful’ uses and exploration of outer space, there are a wide range of possible activities related to scientific research and experimentation, remote sensing, telecommunications and commercial aerospace manufacturing (Tennen, 1979). It is worth considering the benefits that God, the All-Mighty, has made available to man in space.
The first major benefit is satellite communication. Telecommunication and especially direct broadcasting satellites can only be located in an exceptional orbit known as the geostationary satellite orbit (the GSO). This orbit is a three-dimensional corridor lying on the equatorial plane, at a distance 36,000 km (22,300 miles) above the surface of the earth. The importance of this orbit is that satellites rotate in the same direction as the earth does every 24 hours. That is to say, if satellites follow an equatorial path in the direction of the earth’s rotation, they will appear to remain fixed at the same spot above the equator.
The GSO facilities those services such as direct broadcasting satellites, navigational aids and solar energy stations which require round-the-clock coverage of a given area of earth (Wihlborg and Wijkman, 1979, pp.2S-6). The great advantage of the GSO for communication purposes is that one satellite can observe approximately 40 per cent of the surface of the planet, which means that three satellites are enough for global coverage.
However, the GSO is a physically limited natural resource. Satellites located in orbital slots wander around 100 miles horizontally. Hence, once a satellite occupies a spot in the orbit, it precludes the use of the same slot by any other since slots are located in a three-dimensional tube with a total length of 150,000 miles, the GSO only has room for 1,500 such slots with a zero probability of collision.
However, no one knows exactly how many satellites can occupy the GSO. The orbit is expected, in the very near future, to be used for the gathering and transmission of solar energy from very large space objects to earth by microwave or laser beams (Christol, 1980-81). This will increase the problem of orbital slot scarcity and bring about contentious debates about use of the GSO. There are at present around some three hundred satellites in orbit so the congestion does not present a problem for the time being. However, in the decades to come the GSO will be saturated and there will be no ‘slot’ to locate a new satellite.
Since few states have satellites in the GSO, telecommunication via satellites is a very lucrative business. The overwhelming number of satellites are owned and run by the handful of technologically advanced states. Hence, they earn very significant amounts of money out of these activities. The full-time use of one single channel is around US$ 200,000 per month. A satellite transmitting 100 million message units, for example, earns $1 million each day.
Apart from broadcasting and communication satellites, there are observation satellites rotating vertically and horizontally around the world keeping their owners informed about weather, ocean conditions, catastrophes, pollution levels, atmospheric changes, the kinds and conditions of agricultural crops, the position of hidden minerals and fossil fuels (Schneider, 1986).
The samples collected by the Apollo showed that lunar soil contains, as percentages, 41.3 oxygen, 21.6 silicon, 15.3 iron, 5.4 aluminium, 6.8 magnesium, 0.1 potassium. There are also traceable amounts of sodium, sulphur, hydrogen, nitrogen, copper, zinc and lead in the samples collected (Bille, 1990, p.109). Out of these lunar materials, various minerals and metals, alloys, cement, electrical conductors, glass, silicone resins, rocket propellants and numerous industrial chemicals could be produced. One study concluded that hydrogen and oxygen, stored in lunar rocks, could be used to make air, water and rocket fuel. It is also said that the moon is rich in helium-3, which, almost non-existent on earth, may be usable as an ideal fuel for fusion power plants because of its low radioactivity (ibid., p.110).
Apart from the moon’s rich resources, asteroids are seen as extremely valuable celestial bodies. Scientists have found that there are dozens of mineral-rich asteroids circumnavigating the earth. These asteroids are on average 500 metres across and made of solid nickel-iron. Just one such asteroid could possibly meet years of global demand for these elements. Scientists reckon that asteroids within the vicinity of the earth contain abundant amounts of nitrogen, hydrogen and free metals. It is technologically feasible to process these asteroids on an industrial scale in outer space, more easily than exploitation of the moon’s resources. Such extraterrestrial production could avert earthbound pollution and potential conflicts over scarce earth resources (Condora, 1984, p.178). It was estimated in the 1980s that an asteroid could be worth five billion dollars. It is also projected that asteroids would be processed in outer space for extraterrestrial construction of space stations.
C) Space manufacture
Although satellite communications and remote sensing are already very profitable commercial enterprises, space manufacturing is thought to have even greater commercial potential. As space is a relatively dust-free, micro gravity environment, it offers a unique laboratory setting for the development and processing of some complicated chemicals, pharmaceuticals, semi-conductor crystals, glass and metal alloys-indeed, production under micro gravity conditions is estimated to be up to 500 hundred times that possible on earth and with a degree of purity unobtainable on earth (Jericho and McCracken, 1986, p.802).The potential market sales for such products is reckoned at around $20 billion annually.
Additionally the relatively uncontaminated space environment is an ideal place for growing crystals used in computers, optoelectronics and ultrasonic equipment; for developing floride glass used in laser and fibre optic applications; and for producing new metal alloys as well as metals of higher purity and structural uniformity (ibid., p.803). In sum, the horizons for potential use of space are immeasurable.
The Islamic countries and space activities
Our concern is to find out what the Muslims are doing or not doing in the face of the continued progress of the space-faring Christians (NASA, ESA), the Jews (Israel), the Buddhists (People’s Republic of China, Japan), the Hindus (India). It was declared at the beginning of the ‘space age’ that space would be a province all mankind. However, it is apparent that it is only the technologically advanced non-Muslim states who are ploughing in huge sums of money into aerospace technology and enjoying the benefits of the outer space environment. Muslims in general seem unaware of the fact that it is enjoined upon them to keep abreast of the latest science and technology and to be as equipped as the non-Muslims. For example, in Sura al-Mulk, God directs our attention to the Heavens:
‘He who created the seven one above another: you will see no want of proportion in the creation of the Most Gracious, so turn your sight again: Do you see any flaw? Again turn your vision a second time; your sight will return to you dim and discomfited, in a state worn out’ (67.3-4. See also 7.54; 13.2; 21.33; 36.40;51.7; 81.15.)
In the light of this encouragement, the Arab Muslims, from very the beginning of Islamic civilization reached the highest degree in astronomy. While the pre-Renaissance Christians thought the world flat, Muslims realized that it must be round and that it rotates on its axis. The Muslims in the Abbasid period detected many stars and constellations and gave names to them which are still used (See, for more information, Sharh al-Mawaqif and Ma‘rifatname by Ibrahim Haqqi of Erzurum; also, al-Hayat by Nur al-Din Batruji,d.1185).
Until the decline of the Ottoman Empire, Islamic scholars had been for centuries at the leading edge of study in astronomy as well as other pure and applied sciences. Even as late as the last 19th century, astronomy was an essential subject in the curriculums of the Ottoman colleges. However, some narrow-minded Muslims decried the teaching of scientific knowledge in schools and prevented Muslims from education. Their efforts were one (though not the only) reason for the relative decline of the Oriental world. This attitude degenerated further into the sinister view that any non-Muslim knowledge or equipment makes a person an unbeliever.
Vestiges of this barbarism remain to this day. To give an anecdote: I know of an imam who was recently accused by some peasants of being an unbeliever simply for informing them during a sermon delivered in their village that human beings had landed on the moon.
On the other side, Western propaganda has persistently labelled Islam as ‘backward’ and ‘unenlightened’, and imposed a feeling of inferiority among many Muslims-so that they find themselves thinking-‘The non-Muslims have walked on the moon, while we still walk barefoot on the earth.’ For over a century and a half, Muslims have been deliberately kept behind Western achievements. But the trust (amana) that God has bestowed upon mankind is most particularly the responsibility of the believers, the Muslims. Are we ready to live up to it?
God declares in the Qur’an: Before this We wrote in the Psalms, after the Message (given to Moses ): My servants, the righteous, shall inherit the earth. No one should doubt that one day this truth guaranteed by God’s oath will come true. An eminent Islamic scholar has read this verse to mean that the human stewardship will not be confined to the earth. Rather, those who become the trustees and masters of the earth will also rule over the remotest parts of the skies (Sahin, 1993). Naturally, such rule depends upon qualifications and quality. It is essential therefore that Muslims acquire the qualities demanded by the only Owner of the heavens and the earth. Even, this promise will come true to the degree that Muslims do acquire the requisite qualities (ibid.).
Are the Muslims indeed striving to get the requisite qualities? To a certain degree, yes. After the emancipation from the years of colonization, Islamic countries (particularly Indonesia, Pakistan, Iraq and Iran) began to educate their own experts in sophisticated technology. But colonization has been followed by a brain drain. Thus, it is reported that there are considerable numbers of Turkish scientists working in NASA’s space programmes.
With regard to space technology, there are incipient attempts by the Islamic countries. One such attempt is the Arab Satellite Communication Organization (ARABSAT). The Charter of the Organization was signed by twenty one Arab States in 1976. ARABSAT is intended to fulfil the aspirations of the Arabs have their own satellite system as a tool for socio-economic development of the region and for bringing about the transfer of technology. The ARABSAT space segment is composed of two satellites launched in 1985 and 1992, and located on the GSO at 19’E and 26’E respectively. But the organization does not have its own launching pads. Hence, it is dependent upon either the European Ariane or the US Space Shuttle. In addition to this, two Turkish Satellites will soon be sent to the GSO. TURKSAT project will be an important milestone in the communication of Turkic and Islamic countries.
Surely, the achievements of ARABSAT and TURKSAT are not promising in terms of scope and infrastructure. Islamic countries need to pool their scientific, technological and, more importantly, financial resources to set up an Islamic aerospace organization. Arab petro-dollars are wasted in Western banks when they could be channelled into this potentially lucrative area. The break-up of the USSR is an extremely good opportunity for the fledging Turkic Republics to collaborate with other Islamic states. The launch pads of the former Soviet Union were set up in Kazakhstan. Today the Kazakhs are waiting for customers. In the CIS, as Mikhail Osin said: ‘the pay of those who build spaceships is lower than that of a floor sweeper’ (Lemonick, 1993). The petrol-rich Arab countries could and should attract the space-engineers of Muslim states to work in the establishment of Muslim space programmes...
In conclusion, unless Muslims are prepared to face up to the necessities of the post-industrial era and to the requirements of a new century by investing their wealth on intellectual property and technology, never will the present Muslims walk on the moon, while the Christians will be left free to exploit the resources of the Universe not for the benefit of all mankind, but their own benefit at the expense of others. But, when God’s promised time due, the Crescent will surely embrace the stars.
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Outer space: Mankind's new frontier
- By M. A. Sayar
- Category: Issue 4 (October - December 1993)
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