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[CHENNAI] Indian space scientists have launched a US$20 million satellite — called 'Edusat' — that will be used exclusively for teaching. The "teacher in the sky" will address the twin problems of rural illiteracy and the lack of trained staff, says Madhavan Nair, chairman of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO).

From next month, the satellite will beam programmes in local languages directly to 1,000 schools, 200 each in the states of Assam, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Orissa. In the coming three years, Edusat's reach will be extended to a total of 10,000 schools. The satellite's powerful 'spot beam' technology enables reception by small satellite dishes whose low-cost means that households could also turn into interactive classrooms.

"Edusat will propel India into a leadership role in distance education," predicts Nair.

The satellite technology lends itself to interactive learning, as participating schools will be connected to a hub that communicates with Edusat. In one planned programme — the question hour — students' questions will be beamed to the satellite and rebroadcast. This system will allow a teacher in any classroom to communicate with all other participating classrooms, so the answer to a pupil's question might come from a teacher on the other side of India.

Initially, Edusat's programme content will be decided by the state governments' education departments and by the users themselves. Eventually, however, a new organisation is expected to take on this role.

The satellite was launched from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre, 80 km north of Chennai on 20 September. Although Edusat has only a seven-year mission life, it is the forerunner of a planned nationwide service that aims beam educational programmes from space to 200,000 classrooms.

According to the ISRO, India would need to create a "constellation of Edusats" in phases to meet the needs of the entire country. The organisation has proposed a self-sustaining business model under which it would provide the satellites, and industry would supply the hardware for schools and colleges, which in turn would produce the teaching material.

ISRO looks upon the Edusat project as social mission but hopes that commercial education programmes driven by the private sector could eventually use Edusat's transponders for a fee.

"The benefits of Edusat could also reach neighbouring countries covered by the satellite's 'footprint'," says Nair.

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