Africa’s satellites: Miniaturisation allows more African nations to collect orbital data

Analysis in brief: Since the launch of Africa’s first artificial satellite in the 1990s, these orbital devices have grown smaller and less expensive, affording additional nations the opportunity to enter the space race. However, all orbital technology is being put into service for the common purpose of terrestrial development.

Much progress in a brief span of time

Three decades ago, African nations were not participants in space science. Africa had observatories – indeed, ancient Egyptian astronomers were amongst the first to make sense of the night sky – and in Kenya, the world’s first water-based launch pad was erected by the Italians a few metres off Kenya’s Indian Ocean coast in 1964. Other than that launch pad and one in South Africa, there are still no facilities on the continent to send rockets into space nor any rocket factories. However, by launching their payloads as cargo aboard American, Asian, European and US rockets, nearly a third of Africa’s countries by 2023 have their national flags painted onto satellites that currently orbit thousands of kilometres overhead. Those countries that have sent up satellites have plans to send up more, while new countries launch their own for the first time.

Africa’s first satellite was launched by South Africa in 1999. Called SunSat, it was followed by other South African satellites in the SunSat series. As of May 2023, 53 satellites have been launched by 15 African countries. The most recent satellite to go up was sent by Kenya in April 2023. The uses for these devices are varied, but all have the same basic function: to gather data. Aiming their instruments earthwards, their cameras and sensors collect data vital to city and industrial planning, disaster management planning, environmental tracking, food production, nations’ security and weather studies.

Space infrastructure is growing

While satellites cannot yet be launched on rockets from Africa, they are being designed by African scientists. Sometimes, these technicians are attached to African or overseas universities. South Africa’s SunSat was designed at Stellenbosch University. However, 20 African countries have also formalised national space programmes that involve the establishment of research facilities or sometimes a national space agency as a governmental entity. Of the 53 African satellites now in orbit, about one-fifth – nine in total – have been launched by commercial entities. These programmes introduce new technological capacity to their countries and are fertile training grounds for a growing group of African space scientists. Overall, research and development in Africa is lagging in the private sector and is underfunded at universities. Space programmes demand such investment and receive it.

The current generation of affordable miniaturised satellites is making African nations’ space ambitions possible. These small devices – Kenya has designed a microsatellite that measures 10 cm by 10 cm in size – are designed and programmed by a new generation of African space technicians. Virtually all African satellites launched in recent years have been microsatellites. Because of advances in the miniaturisation of parts, solar energy and data collection devices, their capabilities equal those of earlier generations of large satellites.

Kenya’s first satellite is only 10 cm by 10 cm and weighs 1.2kg
Image courtesy: Capital News

The ground infrastructure that enables utilisation of space satellites is also expanding. Ground stations track satellites and receive the data they beam down, astronomical observatories and rocket launch facilities are in the planning stages. Kenya’s aforementioned off-shore launch facility, the Luigi Broglio Space Centre, is one example, as is South Africa’s Denel Overberg Test Range.

Space investment is bringing dividends

One common criticism levelled against African governments that finance space programmes is the belief that the limited public funds are being misused for endeavours that are mistaken as being prestige-driven and do not serve the immediate critical needs of a nation’s people. However, of significance is the lack of criticism heard from the UN and international fiscal responsibility organisations like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Space programmes have been shown to produce economic benefits. As the UN noted in its ‘Space Technology and the Implementation of the 2030 Agenda’ report, “Utilising space contributes positively to a range of policy areas, including climate and weather monitoring, access to health care and education, water management, efficiency in transportation and agriculture, peacekeeping, security and humanitarian assistance.”

By providing data to counter environmental degradation, sustainable agriculture and other areas, Africa’s satellites are helping nations reach their commitments to the UN’s Agenda 2030 by advancing the achievement of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. Meanwhile, private firms are harnessing satellite data for commercial purposes, resulting in employment that reduces poverty levels, and are raising tax revenues that are used for social welfare programmes. In this way, they contribute to the achievement of nations’ own sustainable development agenda.

Global spending on space programmes
Data courtesy: Euroconsult


Of the total global spend on space, Africa’s share is less than 1%. For more than half of Africa’s countries, space programmes are unaffordable and, at present, unthinkable acquisitions. However, as evidence compounds about the economic and social benefits to countries who have orbital-derived data, these attitudes are likely to change, propelling more Africans into space enterprises.

The critical points:

  • The 2023 anniversary of the launch of Africa’s first satellite sees 15 African countries in space and 53 African satellites in orbit
  • Small, affordable microsatellites have made African countries’ entry into space possible, resulting in the training of new African space technologists, the building of ground infrastructure for space programmes and a rise in technological capacity and knowledge
  • Data beamed down from space has found commercial applications and helps African nations meet their development goals