By Peter Timko

Saturday, February 18. I wake up in Berlin and spend the morning faffing on the phone. My newsfeed is full of satellite imagery tracking cyclone Freddy, a category 5 storm brewing in the Indian Ocean. In footage shot from the International Space Station it looks almost peaceful, a stately swirl of white clouds gently drifting across the ocean’s blue expanse. In its path are green flecks, islands. Seen from the high perch of low Earth orbit, the tiny archipelago seems isolated and vulnerable to the storm system bearing down on it. In a few hours, I’ll board a plane bound for one of these islands, Mauritius. I’ll arrive just in time to see Freddy from another angle.

Monday, February 20. I wake up in Flic en Flac, a small beach community on the western coast. I spend the morning queuing to buy bottled water and canned food with a few residents who had put off preparing for the storm. It’s extremely humid. As we wait, an older man tells me this will be the worst cyclone in more than 15 years, another advises the group to move everything inside “unless you don’t want to see it again.” No one is particularly panicked, in fact, some are really there to buy rum, but the air has that charged quality that comes with falling atmospheric pressure. Later, I watch as the gale-force winds scatter debris and bend the palms outside the window. Freddy is different up close; seen from below, those white clouds are a heavy gray ceiling and that stately swirl doesn’t feel so gentle. Seeing this local perspective is exactly why I made this trip.

Cyclone Freddy as seen from Flic en Flac.

Mauritius is an island nation some 2,000 kilometers east of the African mainland. Geographically remote with a relatively small population and a modest economy, the country isn’t one of the world’s major space powers—which is exactly why it deserves attention. The new space economy emerges differently across different contexts. Fully understanding how it works requires looking at how it folds in and relies on people and places far from the metropole powers and high-profile projects. Even remote places like Mauritius are intimately intertwined with the larger space ecosystem. Like more than 70 countries around the world, it’s established its own space program built around its own needs and objectives. Just last year, the Mauritius Research and Innovation Council partnered with JAXA to launch MIRSAT-1, the country’s first satellite. Incidentally, one of the satellite’s objectives was testing an inter-island communication service for use during weather emergencies. 


While in Mauritius, I’ll be looking at a few different ways the country connects to space. But, right now, I’ll detail one specific way. It has to do with infrastructure being built there: satellite ground stations. When satellites capture data from orbit—for example, those aerial views of Freddy I enjoyed from my bed in Berlin—that data must be sent down to Earth. One way to do this is connecting with a ground station equipped to receive a signal. However, there’s a catch: LEO satellites are in constant motion and can only “see” a certain slice of the Earth’s surface at a time. Thus, they can only transmit data for the brief window they are aligned with a station down below. Sometimes, this isn’t a problem; you can just wait until a sat’s orbit passes over a station. But, for a lot of applications, time is of the essence. It’s best to reduce that latency or even achieve constant contact, 

A map of Leaf Space’s current and growing GSaaS network.

Leaf Space, an Italian company, aims to solve the tricky technical problem of satellite latency by offering ground stations as a service, or GSaaS. In short, this involves building a network of ground stations so that it can offer a constant, lag-free link to any satellite operator willing to pay. Of course, to cover every possible orbital position, the network must have stations all over the globe. Moreover, each site must meet a lengthy list of conditions—it must fill in a geographic gap in the network, have adequate electric and telecom infrastructure, a skilled and reliable local workforce, a financial  environment favorable for investment, and have a regulatory regime amenable to transmission operations. From this technical, outsider perspective, Mauritius is ideal.


But, what about the view from Mauritius? There are many reasons building space infrastructure could be appealing. As scholars have pointed out, space initiatives are tied up in many processes; they can be a means of cultivating national prestige (Sheehan, 2013), be a tool for crafting political subjectivities (Aima, 2018), or be seen as path for brighter, cosmopolitan futures (Johnson, 2020). For some in Mauritius, at least one reason is economic. The country is already a regional technology hub and both the government and commercial sector aim to expand this economic sector on the island. The Mauritius Research and Innovation Council sees developing space projects as part of this process—a presentation at the 2021 IAC in Dubai even suggested ground stations could be a possible growth area. The Norwegian Kongsberg Satellite Services (KSAT) already operates one such station on the island’s south coast. More recently, AtComm, a local telecom firm, partnered with Leaf Space to build and operate a ground station on the north coast of the island. 


These aren’t the first satellite stations built in the area. The Chagos Islands, an atoll wrested from Mauritius by the British government, has been the site of similar infrastructure since the 1960s. After forcibly removing nearly 1,000 residents, the UK turned one island, Diego Garcia, over and the United States which has used the site as a military base and key node in a network of satellite operations ever since (Hecht, 2011). Currently, it hosts the US Space Force and helps track missions for NASA and SpaceX. 


The story of Diego Garcia is a story of British imperialism, Cold War technopolitics, and dispossession. The new ground station being built on Mauritius comes from a different set of conditions and will have a different story, or different stories. One of my goals in coming here is to get a clearer picture of the perspectives held by the people and communities building this country’s maturing space sector. I hope to learn what these stories are, who tells them, and why. Through speaking with the various stakeholders connected to this specific infrastructure project, I hope to understand how partnerships like this one work, and what they can explain about how the space industry operates in this particular time, place, and social context. Like gazing at a cyclone from above, seeing the big picture can be stunning, but even visions from space never shows everything—collecting grounded, situated views is just as important. 

Works Cited


  • Aima, R. (2018). Life on Mars: Dubai projects a new vision of nationalism. World Policy Journal, 35(1), 10-15.
  • Hecht, G. (Ed.). (2011). Entangled geographies: Empire and technopolitics in the global Cold War. MIT Press.
  • Johnson, A. W. (2020). Space cultures and space imaginaries in Mexico: Anthropological dialogues with the Mexican Space Agency. Acta Astronautica, 177, 398-404.
  • Sheehan, M. (2013). ‘Did you see that, grandpa Mao? ’The prestige and propaganda rationales of the Chinese space program. Space Policy, 29(2), 107-112.

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