Africa’s space race is a serious pursuit

Analysis in brief | Africa’s most advanced economies have invested in space programmes, from satellite launches to full-fledged agencies dedicated to putting Africans into orbit.

The building of an Ethiopian observatory assists in the country’s aim to put a state-of-the-art satellite into orbit as part of its plans to improve communications. Image courtesy: Getty Images. Available at: http://www.express.co.uk/news/world/600836/Ethiopia-launch-space-programme

Key points:

  • Nigeria and South Africa have been operating space agencies, and Egypt and Ethiopia have announced their own space programmes
  • Algeria and Morocco have also launched satellites for military and civilian purposes with assistance from China, the European Union and Russia
  • Some satellite applications can now be done by drones, requiring cash-strapped African nations to invest cautiously in ever-evolving space technology

Space exploration is seen as a way for Africa to advance its communications agenda, via locally built satellites boosted by homemade rockets from African launching complexes. Space technology has become more universal, evolving from its Cold War origins where the US and Russia vied for strategic advantages and prestige with their space programmes. As part of goodwill programmes, Africans have ridden into space, courtesy of the US and Russia, and African scientists and technicians have trained overseas in space applications. Some mechanical components, used by the East and the West, have been assembled in South Africa and other African states, domesticating this technology and laying the groundwork for Africa’s own space programmes. The effort has been costly and at times cost-inefficient, as the learning curve ascends like the arc of a rocket’s trajectory.

Trips to Mars are not on any African nation’s space agenda, at least, not yet. Rather, communications, scientific satellites and rocketry to boost these into orbit are being pursued. To achieve this goal, entire launch complexes must be constructed, backed up by scientific research and technology infrastructure, including an ever-proliferating bodies of African scientists and technocrats. No doubt, the satellites launched will have military applications, particularly of the spying variety. However, commercial and humanitarian programmes will be the emphasis of space investment. Weather gathering information and environmental monitoring will become increasingly important as climate change impacts African ecologies, from coral reefs to crop lands and rain forests. A significant factor fuelling Africa’s space race is the same that charged the superpowers’ space competition of 50 years ago: pride. African countries with the financial ability and technological prowess can have their space programmes attest to their economic and social progress, literally propelling Africa out of perceptions of backwardness.


Ethiopia announces its entry into the space race

Spying on neighbouring states from orbit will likely be one of the less wholesome applications of space technology by Addis Ababa’s authoritarian regime. However, Ethiopia’s first satellite, to be built and launched by China by 2022, will be used for monitoring crops and facilitating food security. Government also wants its own communications satellite, as do other African states. Space experts wonder about multiplying communications satellites when only a few are sufficient to handle the entire continent’s telecommunications and internet needs.

However, African governments tend to seek control of the means of communications in their countries. Ethiopia has cumbersomely shut down the internet during an ongoing state of emergency, causing costly disruptions to businesses when the intended targets are political activists. By having all internet traffic travel through its own satellite, government can more easily regulate internet traffic and cherry-pick sites to disable. However, in the near future, Ethiopians and others may be able to bypass national communications systems and link with privately owned communications satellites.


Nigeria’s space ambitions prove costly

Nigeria has launched five satellites, all foreign-built. However, inability to make profitable its expensive communications satellites – its first effort costing US$ 300 million and bought from China failed after a few months – show the hazards of space investment. Countries must also familiarise themselves with new technologies that are capable of more cheaply accomplishing what was once done by orbiting satellites. Drones can now monitor crops and environmental conditions. So many satellites put in orbit by international owners have brought down usage costs for these instruments, and software to carry out tasks is often free through open source applications.

Nigeria’s desire to put a Nigerian into orbit is more ambitious than the continent’s other nations’ space goals. Begun in 2008, the National Space Research and Development Agency (NASRDA) has more than 2,000 employees working to achieve the launching of a local astronaut into space from Nigerian soil. Until adequate funding is available from government or private donors, progress will remain fitful. In 2018, the first Nigerian-made satellite will be launched into space, a significant development that, if successful, will give new impetus to NASRDA.


A 26 meter telescope at the Hartbeesthoek Radio Astronomy Conservatory. Credit: M Gaylard / HartRAO

South Africa continues to pioneer

The South African National Space Agency (SANSA) was formed in 2010, a year after the country launched its first satellite. SANSA seemed a natural outgrowth of the country’s terrestrial accomplishments in technological research and its people’s passion for exploration. The latter was exemplified in 2002, when South African businessman Mark Shuttleworth was the first African to fly into space and who paid Russia to take him to the International Space Station. Shuttleworth has been more than a tourist, fervently promoting space exploration at schools and conventions.

During the early years of space exploration, the US’s NASA space agency maintained a tracking station at Hartebeesthoek in South Africa.  Hartebeesthoek Radio Astronomy Observatory received the first images of the planet Mars, beamed from Mariner IV when that spacecraft flew past the red planet in 1965. Today, South Africa is joining eight other African countries and Australia to build the world’s largest radio telescope, with thousands of antenna dishes to be built in the Karoo, and additional outstations in the various partner countries.


Literal launch pads to tomorrow

With Russia as an ally and aide, Egypt has launched a military satellite. In addition, Egypt also has a national space authority that plans to use satellite technology to discover natural resources and new ground water supplies within their borders. A private Egyptian firm, Nilesat, operates a communications satellite. Close by in North Africa, Algeria has had the European Space Agency (ESA) from which France launched a satellite to monitor natural disasters and map urban areas for city planning purposes, while Morocco’s ESA-launched satellite is being used for various surveillance activities. In 2016, Morocco signed a US$ 570 million contract with two French firms, Astrium Satellites and Thales Alenia Space, to build and launch its satellites. Rwanda has opened Africa’s first drone airport and hopes to expand its technological capacity for space launches.

The African Union member nations adopted the African Space Police and Strategy in 2016 that will create regulations guiding a continental space exploration programme and promoting space awareness among Africans as a practical means of improving people’s lives. Space does offer such opportunities, while also having the ability to hinder development by being used as a means to censor the free flow of ideas necessary for democracy and economic growth. South Africa’s SANSA proclaims its mandate as the delivery of “space-related services and products to the citizens of South Africa and the region.” Whether civilian or military applications of Africa’s use of space is a matter of intense advocacy among supporters of the former, from educators to entrepreneurs.