Africa's space race ready for launch

In Andy Weir’s (author of The Martian) latest book Artemis, the eponymous moon city is run by the fictitious Kenya Space Corporation. Given the level of interest about space in Africa, Weir’s artistic licence may be more than just sci-fi conjecture.

Calls by African governments for the creation of domestic space agencies may appear to be unreasonably lofty goals, with many citing the spate of more pressing issues facing the continent. Yet investment in space facilitates a series of knock-on effects that help tackle those (more terrestrial) problems.

Africa is home to over a billion people and many of the world’s fastest growing economies, so it should come as no surprise that demand for space-based technologies and investment is growing rapidly. Indeed, demand for satellite capacity in sub-Saharan Africa is forecast to double in the next five years.

 
 

In response to this growing trend, the African Union (AU) proposed the creation of an African Space Agency in 2015, a concept that has been previously raised by various African leaders such as Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir. In 2016, the AU adopted the All African Space Policy & Strategy initiative, which prompts member states to “realize an African Outer Space Programme as one of the flagship programmes [...] of the AU Agenda.”

A related call - for the creation of an Africa Initiative for Planetary and Space Sciences - by African academics seeks to enshrine astronomy and planetary science in high school curriculums. Proponents of this idea are trying to replicate the kind of generation-wide inspiration that the Apollo program fostered in the United States and beyond. Aiming high and seeking to create African success stories could be a powerful tool in promoting space (and STEM in general) among Africa’s youth.

Africa's forgotten space-race legacy

Supporters can point to the important role played by Africa during the height of the space race, as well the failure to capitalize on this fact in subsequent decades. The world’s first launch site on, or near the equator, was established in Kenya by Italy in 1964. Just one year after NASA landed a man on the moon, Kenya launched its first satellite. Named Uhuru - or 'freedom' in Swahili, the NASA sponsored satellite (launched on Kenyan Independence Day) was the first earth-orbiting mission dedicated entirely to celestial X-ray astronomy. “Many people got their PhDs from that satellite, but no Kenyans,” laments Dr. Paul Baki, professor of space science at the University of Nairobi.

 

Scientists conduct Uhuru's pre-flight test, 1970. | NASA

 

Overall, the Luigi Broglio Space Center, (or 'San Marco' as the facility is known) launched nine satellites and twenty research rockets between 1967 and 1988. Since then it operates as a communications and logistics hub for various national space agencies and companies. Kenyan legislators have for some time sought a re-negotiation of the 50 year old contract in order to ensure Kenya receives a greater share of revenue, as well as that more Kenyans become part of the site’s staff.

Kenya failed to grasp the opportunity to become an important player in space, yet Dr. Baki is leading the charge to try again. He played a key role in launching the first astronomy program at the University of Nairobi in 2008, as well as the launch of the space science department at Kenya Polytechnic University in 2013. Furthermore, in 2017 the Kenya Space Agency (KENSA) was established, to much fanfare.

Lift off from San Marco, 1974 | KENYAN AVIATION

Africa's space boom 2000 to present

Alongside Kenya, various other African countries are working towards (or have already) establishing space agencies. Nigeria created the National Space Research and Development Agency (NASRDA) in 2001, launching five satellites since 2003: Algeria created its own agency in 2002. Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia have all launched satellites in recent years, and in 2016 Egypt announced plans for the creation of its own space agency; with Ghana launching its first satellite in August 2017.

2017 also saw SatSpaceAfrica, a fast-growing IP connectivity company announce that it will (in partnership with Canada’s Telesat) open a new operations hub in Namibia; its third on the continent. Furthermore, in the near future, Angola plans to launch a satellite by 2018, with Ethiopia hoping to launch a satellite in the next three to five years.

 

Some of the organizations at the vanguard of Africa's space ambitions

 

Most recently, Angola held its collective breath as Russian operators lost contact with the country's first satellite for two days following its December 27th 2017 launch. Fortunately, Angola’s first telecommunications satellite was recovered on the 29th, highlighting the gamble nations still take when launching missions to space.

One of the most established players is South Africa, which launched its first satellite in 1999 and established the South Africa Space Agency in 2010. South Africa is also home to MeerKAT, the most powerful radio telescope in the southern hemisphere, which was completed in 2016. South Africa was also selected to host the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), the first phase of which is estimated to cost $790 million. Slated for completion by 2030, this facility will be 50 times more sensitive than existing telescopes and survey the sky some 10,000 times faster: it will also require more capacity than the entirety of global internet traffic in 2013.
 

 
 

Such ambitious plans are encouraging; however, African countries currently seeking to launch satellites or conduct other space-based activities must still procure the services of NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), the Russian Space Agency (ROSCOSMOS), or others like China’s CNSA and Japan’s JAXA. This leaves African nations out of pocket for expensive construction and launch contracts as well as the costs incurred shipping payloads across enormous distances to make use of existing launch facilities.

West African states race for satellite market

The costs of outsourcing satellite projects can sometimes lead to embarrassing mishaps. Recently, Nigeria secured $550 million from China to purchase two satellites from Chinese manufacturers, slated for launch in the next two years. Nigeria had initially sought to cover fifteen percent of the costs, yet was unable to come up with the requisite funding.

These two satellites are destined for the government-owned satellite company NigComSat, as the company currently only has one satellite. By acquiring more satellites, Nigeria seeks to assuage concerns from investors and consumers about the company's reliance on only one satellite, as well as expand its coverage.

“We can now go ahead, not just to market our services to the entire continent, but to also insist that all Nigerian entities must patronize Nigeria satellite company, rather than going to the US or the UK for services. Now we can say, - no, our local content policies say you must patronize Nigeria [sic],” remarks Adebayo Shittu, Nigeria’s minister of communications.

This announcement comes at an important time, as Nigerian mobile operator - Globacom - recently had its license revoked in Benin. Citing an inability to agree on a new license agreement and complaints about poor service quality, Benin decided to revoke Globacom’s operating licence. This is just one instance of the telecom capacity bottleneck facing Africa; one that hinders efforts to promote business and connect citizens. Consequently, demand for satellite capacity has seen a marked up-tick in recent years.

At the same time, Nigeria has stated it seeks to send its first astronaut to space by 2030. While this may be an unrealistic goal, the importance of dreaming big cannot be underestimated, as it reflects and strengthens optimism about the future.

 

Ghanaian scientists from All Nations University pose with the GhanaSat-1 cubesat

 

Optimism and enthusiasm should not be under-estimated, as seen by the launch of Ghana’s first satellite, which occurred without any official support from the Ghanaian government. Instead, JAXA provided most of the training and resources to bring the efforts of scientists at All Nations University to fruition. Ghanasat-1 aims to monitor the country’s coastline, and as a tiny cubesat, foster education by inspiring Ghanaian students. Specifically, the team behind the satellite is hoping to integrate satellite technology into the nation’s high school curriculum.

While initially lacking official support, the scientists behind Ghanasat-1 were congratulated in person by Ghana’s president, Nama Akufo-Addo, following the successful launch; raising hopes of government support in future missions.

Is space funding taking money away from more pressing needs?

Convincing cash-strapped governments and wary foreign donors of the importance of space exploration for Africa can often be an uphill battle. Last year, British tabloid The Daily Mail expressed umbrage at Africa’s space ambitions: “Lunacy! What planet are they on? We give £4 billion to Africa as they race into space” - trumpeted the headline. Similar attitudes have been on display in countries with established space programs for decades, with critics portraying space agencies as black holes that suck up tax dollars.

I won’t bore you with a list of the direct benefits to human civilization from space exploration, but what is worth looking at is how emphasizing space can help Africa solve some of its more terrestrial problems.

The boom in satellite demand in recent years is due not to the ill-considered, lofty goals of nationalist leaders, but rather because satellite technology helps combat many of Africa’s more familiar problems. Alongside boosting research and development, increased satellite coverage allows for more African companies to access the Internet and sell both within and beyond Africa’s borders. Similarly, satellite coverage improves telephone, radio and internet access to rural Africans, helping lower urban-rural inequality.

 

Bosun Yusuf, Thermal Subsystem Enginer, Surrey Satellite Technology Limited, (SSTL), and Know How Technology Transfer, KHTT, infront of SSTL designed spacecraft ‘Nigeria Sat-2’ & ‘NX

 

Satellites in Africa are also being used to monitor urban development and improve urban planning. Countries such as Algeria and Morocco have launched cubesats to facilitate disaster monitoring, and Nigeria was able to track down hostages taken by Boko Haram by following the group’s movements from orbit. Weather forecasting, climate change research, agriculture monitoring, combating illegal mining and deforestation, and development planning are all benefiting from increased African investments in space technology.

One concrete example is the discovery of two aquifers in Kenya which will help ease water shortages in the area by providing a reliable water supply in the region for the next 70 years.

From tracking insurgents to poachers to national border enforcement, more and more African countries are turning to satellite technology to meet their needs. This is not always without controversy, as South Africa found out in 2015 after purchasing a military surveillance satellite from Russia. Alongside concerns about the satellite’s use, South Africa was also exposed for spying on Russian counterparts during their joint venture.

Africa's geographical advantage

From a geographical point of view, Africa also benefits from the fact that many of its countries are on or close to the equator. Launching spacecraft from the equator allows them to capitalize on the fact that that is where the earth’s rotation is the fastest. At just five degrees north, the ESA’s launch facility in French Guiana is the closest launch site to the equator.

For instance, of two identical rockets launched from Guiana and Cape Canaveral, the former would require one percent less fuel to reach orbit. This difference increases when compared to more northerly launch sites in China, Russia and Kazakhstan. While this gives a small boost in terms of speed and fuel consumption, the main benefit from launching close to the equator are the substantial fuel savings from plane-shifting.

 

300 km in diameter, the Vredefort Dome in South Africa is world's largest impact site.

 

Given that many geostationary satellites orbit around the equator, launching from countries near the equator means that far less fuel is required to shift satellites into equatorial orbits from higher or lower latitudes. Consequently, launching from the equator saves a significant percentage of fuel, which given the fact that some 85 percent of a rocket’s mass is propellant, lets you save on fuel and carry higher payloads. These two factors give launching from the equator a substantial economic advantage. Africa’s geographical advantage could help African countries become leaders in the space sector, with the potential of future revenue streams from hosting foreign launches.

This all bodes well for Africa as seven countries (Sao Tome & Principe, Gabon, Republic of the Congo, Uganda, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kenya, and Somalia) are bisected by the equator. If we widen our scope and consider countries five degrees north (like French Guiana) or south of the equator, the number of African countries that meet this criteria jumps to 21. Close to 40 percent of African countries are as competitive (if not more so) in geographical terms, as existing launch sites outside of Africa.

Even for African countries not close to the equator, they still can benefit from a geographical advantage. The fact that the majority of space observation occurs in the northern hemisphere is due to the region’s concentration of wealthy states and leading spacefaring nations. The need to diversify the portions of the sky under observation in part led to South Africa being selected to host the SKA. “What drove this project was a need for [a] next generation radio telescope with a preference for the southern hemisphere,” notes SKA business manager Carla Sharpe - “as then you can view the centre of our galaxy.”

Africa itself is a treasure trove for space research

Furthermore, the geology of the African continent itself is also rich with research potential (i.e. for meteorite hunters in the region’s deserts). Exploration of the dry lakes in Egypt’s Western Desert helps researchers understand alteration signatures on Mars, and East Africa’s Rift volcanoes and hydrothermal systems help in comparisons with extraterrestrial geology.

The Hoba meteorite in Namibia is the largest ever found

Increased satellite coverage over Africa will also allow for more regions to be thoroughly explored for evidence of impact events. Scientists have already confirmed twenty meteorite impacts in Africa, many only visible from space, with more undoubtedly left to discover. Prominent examples include the Vredefort Dome in South Africa, which at 300 kilometres in diameter is the largest confirmed verified impact crater on Earth: it is also the second oldest at over two billion years old.

Africa is also home to the largest meteorite ever found - the Hoba meteorite. Thought to have impacted some 80,000 years ago, the meteorite weighs 60 tons and is now a national monument in Namibia. Space has long had an impact on African cultures, with the !Kung bushmen of Botswana referring to the Milky Way as the, Backbone of Night, which holds up the sky. An even greater impact (no pun intended) can be seen in the Ashanti culture.

Some 70,000 Ashanti live around Lake Bosumtwi in Ghana. The lake sits in a 10.5 kilometre wide crater, and is considered sacred. Alongside being a popular tourist attraction, traditional belief states that it is here that the souls of dead come to bid farewell to the goddess Asase Ya.

From departing souls to departing Earth, contemplation of the cosmos continues to play an important role across Africa. As Africa continues to develop, "reaching for the stars" is increasingly more than just a trite phrase: its the next phase in Africa's ascendency.
 

Jeremy Luedi is the editor of Asia by Africa. His writing has been featured in Business Insider, The Japan Times, The Diplomat, FACTA Magazine, Yahoo Finance, Asia Times. His insights have also been quoted by TIME, OZY, and the Washington Times, among others.