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Wireless Technologies

Why Africa needs a space program

If you popped onto any high street and asked a straw poll of shoppers what sprung to mind when you said “space program”, I think I’m safe in saying the overwhelming majority would think of NASA, astronauts and exciting missions to other planets.

Yet this is by no means the whole picture. As Anu Ojha, Director of the UK’s National Space Academy programme pointed out recently, space science actually covers three different things: Looking out there (astronomy), getting out there (exploration) and looking back here (satellites).

In short, space isn’t just about the fun stuff that gets made into TV dramas, but also covers a lot of very prosaic applications like all those satellites that circle our planet and make life down here easier. And this is precisely why the African continent, which is after all, dogged with numerous social problems of its own, needs a space initiative.

On 31st January this year the African Union (AU) opted to adopt a new African Space Policy and Strategy. This highlighted the continent’s ambition to participate in the development of space-related science, technology and applications, was pan-continent wide, and formed the subject of a recent roundtable run by the Planet Earth Institute (PEI) and the Satellite Applications Catapult.

Exploring the potential around Africa’s space strategy introduced a range of space experts, scientists and speakers and aimed to look at why this initiative was needed and how it could be logistically achieved.

Dr Valanathan Munsami – Chief Specialist for Astronomy and African Space Science – and a key player in South Africa’s bid to win the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) project delivered an especially interesting presentation. This showed that of the 40 core AU objectives an incredible 35 of them require space technology in some form or other.

Like most big picture ideas though all this is unlikely to be easy to achieve and will require concerted partnerships both inside and outside the continent. However, Munsami warned it will also be crucial that Africa is a major investor in events not just a recipient of help. Africa must “come to the table as equal partner”, he said.

Stuart Martin, CEO of Satellite Applications Catapult, an independent innovation and technology organisation works with various social groups around the world added: “To really harness the power of space we need to focus on a global scale”. His organisation has been involved in using satellites to help farmers understand crop patterns in Paraguay and Colombia, understand environmental issues in Chile and better their communication across Africans.

From a publicity perspective the SKA project has proved a solid point in Africa’s favour. This has helped draw talent into South Africa which can also be redeployed into other social space applications.

Ojha of the National Space Academy made the point that “a major challenge” for the sector as a whole is that “people in other areas of physics and other areas of engineering have no idea about the opportunities in space”. This means even totally unrelated high profile initiatives can help bring professionals in. “Many people in space application were inspired by exploration and astronomy,” he said

So, what about a proper African space launch? Well, at the start of April Nigeria announced plans to launch its first manned mission as early as 2030. While Astronomer Royal, Lord Martin Rees, pointed out that new technological developments are bringing the cost of launching down.

However in the end, the success of all this is likely to be down to relevant partnerships and logistics. So, the more people around the world that can see why Africa needs a space program, the more likely it is to happen.  

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