Morocco’s Second Satellite Launch: A Bold Move with “Big Brother” Concerns

Morocco has launched a second satellite, the MOHAMMED VI-B Earth Observation Satellite, from Kourou, French Guiana, destined, among other things, to improve Morocco’s management of human and environmental resources. Nevertheless, its advanced technology has raised concerns over less benign uses.
Morocco Launches Second Satellite

Morocco launched the long-awaited satellite MOHAMMED VI–B early in the morning on Tuesday, November 20. The twin of its predecessor satellite MOHAMMED VI-A launched a year ago on November 7, 2017, the new satellite took off at 22h42 from a launch site in Kourou, French Guiana. Separation of the rocket from the MOHAMMED VI-B occurred around 55 minutes later.

MOHAMMED VI-B is the ninth launch by Arianespace in 2018 and the thirteenth Vega mission since 2012. “This Earth observation satellite for the Kingdom of Morocco was developed by a consortium comprising Thales Alenia Space as system prime contractor and Airbus as coprime,” said the company in a statement. As in the case of MOHAMMED VI-A, satellite B will be operated exclusively by Moroccan engineers and technicians, in Morocco and elsewhere, all of whom have been specifically trained for the purpose.

The new satellite cost Morocco over $570 million and will be used primarily for direct land surveillance.  The government says that it will also be of assistance in other related endeavors, such as regional development, prevention of natural disasters (such as floods, fires, and earthquakes), and monitoring of agriculture and environmental changes such as desertification. MOHAMMED VI-A and B will work together to enable more efficient and reliable coverage of the “target zones.” Both satellites are fitted with cameras that can take up to 500 high-definition photos per day, which are sent to a station in Rabat-Sale every six hours. 

The launch of MOHAMMED VI-B makes Morocco the only African country now with a group of satellites capable of rendering images in such high resolution. This means that working in tandem, the satellites will be used for a range of what has been termed “civil purposes.” Among other things, they will be used to survey metes and bounds of the property. The satellites’ capacity for topographic mapping means that they will be of significant use in assessing farmland for soil fertility, irrigation planning, and other factors that can help farmers optimize production.

Satellites MOHAMMED VI-A and B are expected to improve Morocco’s management of both human resources and physical geography. The satellites will be able to monitor ongoing construction work, communication networks, and public transport. The information they gather will be used to assist major environmental projects such as such as dams, solar power plants, and wind farms. The onboard technologies will also be invaluable in oceanography, in the planning and management of coastal areas, and in urban planning.

The unique viewpoint of the cameras on the satellites is being touted as a way to revolutionize the Moroccan government’s understanding of the evolution of urban areas as well as to aid the kingdom in effectively policing its borders. Water resources, forestry, and mining will also be able to be kept in check through the satellites’ capacity to model accurately such factors as Morocco’s humidity, forest fires, and geology.

While Morocco’s stated focus is on efficient monitoring of natural and environmental conditions, Morocco’s increased capacity for human surveillance and the potential political and other ramifications thereof are also apparent.

The National Centre for Space Studies in France (CNES) has said that the surveillance capabilities of Satellite Mohammed VI-A can be used to “identify military installations in enemy countries in order to plan a military intervention.” Françoise Masson, head of CNES, has expressed concern that the satellites “may be used for secret intelligence.”

Such concerns have not been assuaged by Morocco’s approach to the launching of its satellites. Satellite launches are ordinarily a matter of national pride, something that can advertise a country’s power to the world. As the first African nation with these technological capabilities, one might expect this narrative to apply particularly strongly in the case of Morocco. On the contrary, however, the build-up to the launches has been shrouded in secrecy. 

Florence Sborowsky, a researcher at France’s Strategic Research Foundation (FRS) has said that this culture of secrecy “serves to instill a menacing atmosphere, without being directly threatening.” The supposed threats she refers to relate particularly to Spain and Algeria, two neighboring countries which have expressed concerns about how Morocco may use these technologies. 

Satellites Mohammed VI-A and B clearly extend Moroccan space technologies beyond that of Algeria, which has a series of small satellites under its AISAT program. Among other matters, Algeria is concerned that the satellites will be used in the conflict between Morocco and the Algerian-backed Polisario Front.

Spain also lacks such capabilities, notwithstanding its access to the European Helios Surveillance Program. Madrid is said to be concerned that the new satellites will be used to further Moroccan interests in the two countries’ various disputes, such as those surrounding the Canary Islands and the Spanish enclaves in the North of Morocco, Ceuta and Melilla. A Spanish military strategist told El Pais newspaper in 2017 that “Morocco is a friendly country,” but added that “not even the friendliest goes around snooping around the kitchen.”

“We know that Morocco is at odds with Spain and Algeria regarding certain issues and that the situation is tense at the border with Mauritania. Both these satellites will give Morocco the means to gather intelligence and an independence that no one else has in the region.”

“We know that Morocco is at odds with Spain and Algeria regarding certain issues and that the situation is tense at the border with Mauritania. Both these satellites will give Morocco the means to gather intelligence and an independence that no one else has in the region,” said Sborowsky. She later added that: “For Rabat, [the satellites are] a strategic tool to increase its power in the region.”

Meanwhile, others are concerned that the surveillance capabilities of satellites Mohammed VI-A and B may pose a threat to the civil liberties of those living within Morocco itself. 

Whatever one makes of the political debate over Morocco’s satellite technology, at such a huge cost to the state budget, the launch of MOHAMMED VI-B represents a bold move as Morocco continues to invest in its capacity to develop and flourish as a modern nation.