Turkmenistan is aiming for the stars.
Speaking at his presidential inauguration after winning a galactic 97.7 percent of the vote in an election over the weekend, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov announced that Turkmenistan will embark on further exploration of space.
The state news agency cited the president as saying on February 17 that Turkmenistan will build a world-class observatory from which to study the skies. But there is also a more explicitly commercial intent behind this sudden interest in space.
“Huge attention will be devoted to developing the communications sector,” he said. “We will continue to exploit outer space by launching new satellites that will enable us to optimize telecommunications networks and the national economy and raise the Great Silk Road linking the continents to a whole new level.”
Turkmenistan has already secured a perch in the space. In 2015, a Turkmen satellite was blasted into orbit onboard a SpaceX craft. The 4.5 ton satellite was built on order by France’s Thales Alenia Space and is operated by the Communications Ministry to provide telecommunications services across Europe, Central Asia and Africa.
Berdymukhamedov said at a government meeting in mid-January that one priority for 2017 was to continue developing mobile, broadcasting and internet communications, and that satellites would be key to that goal.
It would, of course, almost certainly be cheaper to rely on plugging the nation’s information infrastructure into regional and global networks, like all neighboring countries do, but Turkmenistan takes its North Korea-style isolation seriously. Internet provision inside Turkmenistan is for now poor and, for much of country’s hard-up population, expensive.
The government revealed in January that the launch of a second satellite is imminent. Contrary to what Berdymukhamedov implied at the inauguration ceremony, however, the intent of that satellite will be to study the earth — to perform remote earth sensing to be exact — not space, according to officials.
But the president is for now selling this space lark in loftier terms. In medieval times, he mused, Turkmen scientists exploited the fine weather to make remarkable discoveries in space and contributed greatly to the development of world science.
Turkmenistan is not the only country in the region making outsized claims to space exploration. In September 2015, Tajikistan announced it had discovered a “minor planet” in the solar system, which it said had been renamed, well, Tajikistan. Authorities claimed in a report (now since seemingly removed from the state news agency website) that the celestial body was so named by a group called the International Astrophysicists Union (which doesn’t seem to exist) in recognition of contributions made by Tajikistan’s scientists to the study of the heavens.