Africa gets two new eyes in space

African space science advanced this week with the launch of a new Nigerian satellite and the announcement of South Africa’s plans to launch a second low-Earth-orbiting satellite next month.

Nigeria launched its communications satellite called NIGCOMSAT-1 at the Xichang Satellite Launch Centre in Sichuan province, south-west China.

Nigeria’s Science and Technology Minister, Turner Isoun, said the satellite will improve telecommunications, broadband multimedia and data-exchange services in Nigeria and on the African continent.

“The satellite makes Nigeria the first country in Africa to have a satellite with four frequency bands and it is expected to improve e-commerce and government efficiency by promoting the development of the digital economy in the continent,” said Isoun.

Mansur Ahmed, director general of the Nigerian Economic Summit Group, said the satellite will “open doors for Nigeria businesses”, allowing individuals to access a wide range of services. He said that by improving the business climate, the satellite will have an indirect effect on alleviating poverty.

The satellite could be useful in rural telephony and telemedicine in the future, said Akin Jimoh, director of the Development Communications Network — a Nigerian NGO focused on science communication and public health.

But some members of the country’s scientific community are more sceptical, particularly in light of the upcoming change in Nigeria’s presidency. Whether the satellite will be called an “achievement” will depend on what the incoming administration does with it, said Akin Adubifa, executive secretary of the Nigerian Academy of Science.

Jimoh said Nigeria should develop a homegrown satellite, instead of relying on Chinese manpower. The government should train more Nigerian scientists and modify the science curriculum to train students in the use of satellites.

The launch is part of China’s increasing cooperation with African countries. According to the Xinhua news agency, Nigeria is the first foreign buyer of a Chinese satellite and launching service.

On June 17, South Africa will launch its second low-Earth-orbiting satellite — orbiting up to 2 000km from the Earth’s surface — from a Russian submarine.

The Sumbandila satellite will monitor floods, droughts and fires in South Africa’s veld areas as well as crop yields, and improve telecommunications in isolated regions. It will also monitor oil spills from international shipping along the country’s extensive coastline.

The Satellite Application Centre at South Africa’s Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) will monitor the satellite. The council hopes that Sumbandila — which means “lead the way” in Venda — will also serve as a way to investigate the viability of affordable space technology in the developing world. — SciDev.Net

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