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Japan halts deployment of Myanmar satellite

By Mizzima Sun,  March 14, 2021

The deployment of Myanmar’s first satellite into space has been halted following the coup of 1 February. With its launch indefinitely suspended, it will be held on the International Space Station (ISS), according to two Japanese university officials.

The decision was made after discussions between Japan’s Hokkaido University and Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) – Myanmar’s project partners – over concerns that data gathered by the satellite may be used by the military Junta against its civilians.

One project manager asking not to be identified told Reuters, “We won’t get involved in anything that has to do with the military. The satellite was not designed for that.”

Significantly, the contract with MAEU did not specify that the satellite cannot be used for military purposes.

The satellite is the product of a joint project between Hokkaido University, JAXA and the Myanmar government-funded Aerospace Engineering University (MAEU), however, since the coup, university officials had been unable to contact the rector of MAEU, Professor Kyi Thwin.

According to Reuters reporter Tim Kelly, the satellite was launched into space by NASA on 20 February as a small part of a large and varied payload of supplies to the ISS 400 km (250 miles) above the earth. It is currently being kept by JAXA inside Japan’s Kibo experiment module on the ISS.

A small earth observation satellite (EOS), the satellite is built using Japanese technology and services. It is one of two 50 kg microsatellites and measures 50 x 50 x 50 centimetres. Equipped with cameras, it is designed to be used for remote sensing to monitor agricultural conditions, environmental monitoring, and disaster surveillance.

Although not built to military specifications and date unable to be accessed directly by Myanmar officials themselves, concerns were raised by human rights activists and some Japanese officials that the technology could be appropriated by the junta for military use.

Talks with Japanese university officials about building an EOS have been reported since August 2018. The joint Japan-Myanmar Satellite project was planned to have commenced in the 2019-20 fiscal year with an expectation of launching the first on by the end of 2021 according to Spacewatch Global.

The project’s US$16 million budget covers the development building and launch of 2 satellites as well as a training program. Engineers and technicians from the MAEU were expected to travel to Japan to be educated by satellite engineering faculty at the Hokkaido and Tohoku Universities.

Training includes satellite engineering and manufacturing, satellite data analysis and interpretation, as well as in all the necessary steps from satellite mission conception and development through to launch and on-orbit operations. However, it is unclear if COVID -19 restrictions have prevented their travel to Japan.

At present Hokkaido University officials don’t know when the satellite will be deployed, but hope that project can be restarted at some point.

Since the 1 February military coup, Japan’s reputation on Myanmar has taken several hits. First, Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide, while expressing grave concerns, calling for the release of detainees, warning that the process of democratisation has been undermined, has failed to condemn the coup Then, following a visit to regime officials by the Japanese Ambassador on 8 March, the Japanese embassy’s Facebook page described the person they met as Myanmar’s ‘foreign minister’.

SOURCE – Mizzima Myanmar, Sun,  March 14, 2021

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