Impoverished Nigeria joins the space age

In a fiery liftoff from northwestern Russia, a Nigerian satellite blasted into orbit on Saturday aboard a red-tipped rocket, propelling one of the poorest nations on earth into space for the first time.

Millions of Nigerians crowded around television sets to glimpse the early morning launch, broadcast live on state television.

“It makes me proud to be a Nigerian,” said Prosper Sunday, a 27-year-old security guard in the commercial capital, Lagos. “It shows our nation is progressing. We’ve joined the space age.” The government plans to use the US$13-million satellite to

monitor water resources, soil erosion, deforestation and natural or man-made disasters, said space agency spokesperson Solomon Olaniyi.

It will be used to surveil military facilities and the country’s crude oil pipelines and infrastructure.
Nigeria is one of the largest exporters of oil in the world, but hundreds of thousands of barrels are siphoned off daily by thieves.

“It’s a great feat for Nigeria,” said Joseph Akinyede of the National Space Research and Development Agency, based in the capital, Abuja. “We have a footprint in space.”

On Earth, however, Nigeria is struggling to provide 132-million citizens with clean water, basic health services and education.

Most villages outside state capitals have no running water or electricity, 70% of the country’s roads are dirt tracks, and over 30% of the population is illiterate. Only nine in every 1 000 residents has a telephone, only six in 1 000 a computer, according to the World Bank. Annual per capital income is about US$290.

“The satellite is a waste of money,” said 21-year-old Gabriel Mordi, selling mobile phone cards on a dusty street in Lagos, a city that seen from above is a colossal sprawl of millions of rusting tin-roof shacks and palm trees.

“They should be helping the poor. Most people here are just struggling to find something to eat.”

In northern Nigerian city of Kano, the word for satellite is “tauraru danadam,” which means “human moon” in the local Hausa language.

“I’ve heard nothing about it. I don’t own a radio, or TV,” said 27-year-old street-side barber Adamu Ahmed, who was shaving a man in blue-flowing robe on one of Kano’s sweltering streets.

“They haven’t told us much about space. I’ve heard of people going to the moon, but I don’t know how they got there.”

Nigeria is unlikely to man a flight to the moon anytime soon, but the government hopes one day to build and launch its own satellites into orbit.

The so-called NigeriaSat-1 was produced by British-based company, Surrey Satellite Technology, with the help of Nigerian technicians trained in Britain, Olaniyi said.

A team of 15 Nigerian scientists and engineers will control the object from a ground station in Abuja as it circles the earth during a five to seven year life-span, Olaniyi said.

The Russian Kosmos-3M rocket that lifted off from Plesetsk Cosmodrome with NigeriaSat-1 carried five other satellites with it—two from Russia, and one each from Turkey, Britain and South Korea.

Nigeria’s satellite will join a constellation of half a dozen others—some yet to be launched—that will jointly monitor disaster areas worldwide, Olaniyi said.

Nigeria’s entry into the space race comes nearly half a century after the former Soviet Union launched the first-ever man-made satellite, Sputnik, into orbit in 1957.

“We started now, there’s no looking back,” said Solomon Adeniran, director for satellite technology at the Nigerian space agency. - Sapa-AP

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