Africa in the growing space race

South African businessman Mark Shuttleworth on his last training session before taking off in the Russian Soyuz rocket in 2002.

Many African nations are emerging as viable participants in the  space race, joining other countries such as India, Brazil, South Korea and China. Both Nigeria and South Africa are leading the way for Africa.

Both African countries have opened space agencies to begin their trek to space with an eye on developing space technologies ranging from satellites to other areas such as telemedicine for health, land mapping and telecommunications.

Nigeria established the National Space Research and Development Agency (NASRDA) in 1998 and developed a 25-year roadmap for the Nigeria Space Program. The focus includes basic space science and technology, remote sensing, satellite meteorology, communications and information technology, in addition to defense and security .  Furthermore, three years ago, Nigeria became the second country in Africa, after South Africa, to launch its own satellite.

South Africa has also pledged to develop its astronomy and space sector, and in July 2006, its cabinet approved the South African Space Agency as an institutional vehicle to look at space science and technology.

In a recent ABC news section, South Africa’s space program was mentioned as a sector that could boost their economy. “South Africa aims to become a regional center for space technology, investing in satellite and telescope projects to support its ailing economy,” said Science and Technology Minister, Naledi Pandor.

Africa’s Satellite Potential

The continent of Africa’s growing appetite for  satellite images is honing the attention of South Africa’s SunSpace satellite manufacturing company.

“The international market for very high resolution remote-sensing data is expanding… and Africa obviously has massive potential to sell our technology,” Ron Olivier, executive director business development at SunSpace, told Reuters on Aug 6, 2009.

Oliver estimated the annual global market value for this type of data at 1.2 billion rand ($151.7 million U.S.).

African Astronauts

While the satellite technology industry is expanding the economic potential of Africa, the goal of Nigeria’s manned space program is to send a man to space by 2016 and to the moon by 2030.

Again, South Africa has beaten them to the punch – technically. In 2002, Mark Shuttleworth became the first African astronaut to experience outer-space. He was one of the initiators of the burgeoning space tourism industry becoming the second self funded space tourist. According to the South African Space Program Aerospace Guide, Shuttleworth spent his time onboard the International Space Station (ISS) conducting AIDS experiments and research in order to understand a virus that affects so many Africans and African Americans.

The African Union has approved a feasibility study for the creation of an African Space Agency.

A decision by the African Union to approve a feasibility study for the creation of an African Space Agency prompted debate. A summit of ministers agreed that the study would also draft a common space policy for the 53 member countries. Some commentators argue that a rival to NASA could provide jobs and spin-off technology.  Others said the continent can ill-afford to pour scarce resources into stargazing when millions continue to face poverty, disease and food shortages.

But the future is already here, if unevenly distributed. Astronomers have worked in Cape Town for centuries and in 1820 established the Royal Observatory at the Cape of Good Hope, the first of its kind in the southern hemisphere. Africa has launched several satellites and, in 2002, internet millionaire Mark Shuttleworth flew on a Russian Soyuz rocket to become the first African in space.

The International Astronomical Union (IAU) recently awarded Cape Town its Global Astronomy for Development Office to help take astronomy to the developing world. Africa is also competing with Australia in a bid to host the world’s most powerful radio telescope, able to peer back billions of years in time.

An international panel is expected to announce the winner from the two shortlisted continents in 2012, with the victor hosting the £1.25bn Square Kilometre Array (SKA) telescope, 50 times more sensitive and 10,000 times faster than any other radio imaging telescope built.

The SKA telescope would eventually consist of about 3,000 antennas, half concentrated on the outskirts of Carnarvon in the Northern Cape in South Africa, with the rest distributed in Namibia, Botswana, Mozambique, Ghana, Mauritius, Madagascar, Kenya and Zambia.

Technology and Research is the Cornerstone of any modern dynamic economy and provides the engine of future growth.  In the past South Africa had the worldwide reputation of punching far above its weight in research and development.  In each respective field, the country had a fraction of the qualified engineers and scientists active compared to other countries, but produced world class technologies which at that stage did earn valuable foreign currency (the ones that reached export status).  This is why South Africa’s achievements in this regard should be highlighted:

  • South Africa was the world leader on Synthetic Fuels (coupled to a related Chemical Industry)
  • South Africa was the Undisputed Leader in large dry cooled power stations. (South Africa now has to buy the  same technology from overseas, from firms like Areva and  Hitachi)
  • South Africa was the only country excepting about 6 others who developed home grown Nuclear Industries (with its unique enrichment technologies), only surpassed much later.  For years South Africa was the only Country posessing a really safe nuclear reactor technology (PBMR), which was canned a month ago.
  • South Africa was the only country in the Southern Hemisphere with a Space Launch System (SA-3) which was later perfected by Israel as the Shavit. This is now the cheapest access into Space.
  • South Africa developed signal coding and decoding (M – Net) while the best the rest of the World could offer was Cable TV.

The point is that precious little new thinking is taking place right now.  I still believe that Africa cannot neglect science and progress. However important education, poverty alleviation and creation of jobs are, Africa still cannot lag behind in scientific research. The benefits of science and research cannot be emphasized enough.

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  1. Its great to see many countries in Africa are participating in the space race. It is a great field for enhancing one’s knowledge and in turn is great for job creation and prestige of the counties involved.

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