Two weeks ago, Rwanda became the latest African country to launch a global satelite into space, signaling the continuation of an ongoing race to space by African countries.
In 1999, South Africa became the first African nation to launch a satelite into space, and has retained its position as the leading space explorer on the continent.
A few days before Rwanda launched the Icyerekezo satellite that will provide schools in remote communities with internet connectivity, the EgyptSat-A was also ferried into ordit by a Russian Soyuz rocket.
EgyptSAT-A, a satellite built to replace Egyptsat 2 was jointly built by Egypt’s National Authority for Remote Sensing and Space Sciences together with RKK Energiya in Russia, while Rwanda’s launch was enabled by a partnership with the United Kingdom’s One Web.
Rwanda’s satelite was the 32nd to be launched by an African Nation, according to Space in Africa, which tracks the African Space and Satelite Industry.
What to expect in 2019
South Africa is set to launch its first private satelite in 2019. Developed by a team of high school girls from Cape Town, the satelite is designed to collect information on agriculture and food security, contributing to better predictions amidst changing weather patterns.
Rwanda and is partnering with the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) in May 2019. This particular satelite is expected to provide government with data to be used in agriculture and predicting weather patterns.
Ethiopia is also set to launch its first satelite into space in September 2019. The $8 million project, funded by China to a tune of $6m, will enable the East African nation to gather data related to water, agriculture, climate change, and environmental protection.
African nations respond to AU call for space exploration
In 2018, Kenya and Angola launched satelites, while Zimbabwe launched its own space agency.
In 2017, the year the African Union launched its African Space Policy which recommends the exploration of space and use of satelites for economic development across the continent, Ghana and South Africa launched satelites into outer space.
African nations usually partner with international space agencies from Russia, Japan, Europe, China and the United States to implement the satelite projects that usually require immense financial resource and specialised human resource.
An expert’s take on the race to space
To help us understand the significance of Africa’s space race, we spoke to Sylvia Makario, a Space Technology Engineer, who is also a co-founder at Hepta Analytics, and a contributor at Space in Africa.
Why should an average African in Rwanda, Egypt, Angola, Ghana, or South Africa care about the need to launch satelites into space?
Depending on what kind of satelite is launched to space, so you find that if its a weather satelite, you get real time information on the weather, and that then informs agriculturalists or farmers would need in terms of data to use. Pilots too would need such information to navigate the airspace.
How much progress has Africa made as a continent in the race to harness space?
It’s gaining ground and African countries are getting into space, in partnership with organisations that are veterans in space technology, helping them to achieve that goal. This means that African countries need to rank up in terms of education systems and also build capacity around that to ensure that its sustainable.
Can we expect an African Space Agency soon? How much more can African nations do to position their countries favorably in this space race?
The African Union has put together experts that are working on that, and its still in the early stages. Its not a fully formed concept, so they are working on that and coming up with frameworks. But at the same time, you do realise that every African country is different, so as they develop the frameworks, they have to also consider which country is going to focus on what. And then that is going to inform how then they collaborate to make sure that the race to space is fully achieved in the African continent and nobody is left behind.