To infinity and beyond: Africa’s space boom

Across Africa‚ countries are increasingly turning to the skies in order to solve problems on the ground.

“Africa has experienced somewhat of a boom in space activity over the last few years with several countries establishing national space agencies‚” said Peter Martinez‚ a professor of space studies at the University of Cape Town.

A number of countries across the continent have declared their growing space ambitions with projects in recent years.

In January‚ Ethiopia announced plans to launch a satellite in three to five years to better predict weather conditions.

In 2013‚ the Kenyan government reported it had found two aquifers that could supply the country with water for 70 years via satellite.

Nigeria aims to put an astronaut in space by 2030 and has used satellites to assist in locating Boko Haram insurgents.

But this boom is not the space race of yesteryear‚ when the United States and the Soviet Union competed for prestige.

Rather‚ Martinez said‚ this space rush is largely fuelled by much lower barriers to entry than ever before.

“In the Cold War days‚ the main actors were superpowers. They were the gatekeepers as to which countries got into space‚” he said.

Now‚ as more countries recognise the importance of satellite technology‚ the prevalence of space technology in modern society makes it much easier to launch satellites into space.

Calestous Juma‚ a Harvard professor who specialises in space programs in developing countries‚ cautions against picturing fantastical and lofty projects when discussing African space programs.

“The space programs are largely about satellites technology and not sending humans into orbit‚” he wrote in an email.

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“It is important to clarify this because…it makes it look like Africans are wasting money on lofty projects that should be left for the rich countries. This image is as wrong as it is misleading.”

Indeed‚ most space agencies today do not focus on putting a person on the Moon or flying someone to Mars; instead‚ countries use satellites to mine data that can be used to benefit their citizenry.

“Satellites are used to support sustainable development in a number of ways‚” Martinez said.

He offers the example of disaster relief.

“In the immediate response to a disaster‚ the infrastructure is probably wiped out so satellites provide the only means for communication and navigation‚” he said.

For more day-to-day practicalities‚ satellites allow countries to develop better policies across a range of fields.

“The changing climate‚ weather‚ resource and environmental mapping‚ security and telecommunications are among the reasons for the growing interest‚” Juma said.

If Kenya can use its satellite data to better predict and ameliorate future droughts‚ then the savings in human lives could outweigh present financial costs.

Space programmes can also provide valuable‚ well-paying jobs in building infrastructure and research‚ as well as stimulate interest in science and technology for young people‚ which can yield unforeseen future advances‚ according to Juma.

Velcro is famously the result of work from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in America.

“You can tell the robustness of a country’s space programme by looking at what is on the ground‚ not what is in the skies‚” he said.

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