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  • Africa, Emerging
    Posted by Frank Morring, Jr. 1:41 PM on Oct 18, 2011

    Cape Town, South Africa—On the surface, the African continent seems custom-made for putting spacecraft to work solving problems on the ground.

    Desperately poor people are scattered across 55 nations, linked—if at all—by substandard roads and communications networks.  Resources as basic as food and water are often in short supply, and the legacy of colonialism casts a shadow over a populace ill-equipped by education and skills to address the structural problems that it left behind.

    In Asia, India and elsewhere in the developing world, space systems have helped people leapfrog over similar problems. Wireless communications connect rural areas with the education and medical resources available in the cities, and Earth-observing satellites guide governments struggling to deliver services where they are most needed—the parched hinterlands and the shantytowns that sprawl around most urban areas.

    But those systems are expensive. As Africa continues its slow march into the space age, leaders must balance the cost of spacecraft and launchers against the urgent needs of the populace.

    “It’s a simple thing,” says Sandile Malinga, a space physicist who heads the new South African National Space Agency (Sansa). “When you say to people we have 20 years to predict what will happen in 50 years in terms of climate change, they say ‘I can tell you what will happen in . . . the shacks, they will flood in winter, and I’m certain about that. Can’t we use the money to improve the situation?’ The issue is why should they worry about tomorrow when today can kill them?”

    Malinga’s agency was established under an act passed in 2008 that only went into effect last year. As CEO, his job is to pull together existing space organizations in South Africa—a comparatively well-off African nation with a small aerospace industry—and lay out a course of action to develop indigenous capabilities that can begin addressing some of the problems that lend themselves to space-based solutions.

    With a startup budget of 150 million rand ($18.7 million), he has set the wheels in motion and is sweating out a budget request to the Cabinet for funding to support development of a new South African Earth-observation satellite that can contribute to the African Resource Management Constellation, among other projects.

    blog post photo

    With 2.5-meter-panchromatic and 5-meter-multispectral resolutions, Sansa’s spacecraft would match the capabilities of NigeriaSat-2 just coming on line. Built by Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. in the U.K., and launched Aug. 17 on a Russian Dnepr rocket, the satellite produced the image (above) of the port city of Mombasa, Kenya. The view underscores satellites’ importance for monitoring and planning urban growth.

    Surrey also helped a group of Nigerian engineers develop and build the 22-meter resolution NigeriaSat-X, a training tool that delivered its first image after only three days in space. The British company has helped other developing nations build satellites too, but African space leaders don’t see that sort of aid as useful in the long run.

    “This kind of know-how technology transfer does not always work very well,” says Peter Martinez, a South African astronomer who headed the local organizing committee here for the 62nd International Astronautical Congress (IAC) Oct. 3-7. “This has partly to do with the receiving country not quite understanding all of the aspects its engineers [must] address, and likewise the country providing the training not being aware of the challenges the engineers face in their own national environment.”

    One possible exception is India, a developing nation that has spent more than 40 years evolving indigenous space systems designed to benefit the rural poor via resource management, telemedicine and tele-education. Sansa and the Indian Space Research Organization discussed an interagency agreement that may see some of the Indian approaches adopted here.

    “There are many similarities between us and the Indians . . . with social issues in terms of poverty juxtaposed next to people who are doing well,” Malinga says. “The Indians have come up with very innovative ways to do things using space.”

    African space leaders along with their science ministry counterparts at the meeting decided it was premature to establish an African Space Agency until they get their home agencies and space infrastructures better established. In the meantime, Malinga and his cohorts will continue their tricky balancing act between the desperate present and hope for the future.

    “I’m grateful that our government sees the need to go beyond [today’s needs], because for us to be sustainable we have to think ahead,” Malinga says. “We need to develop technologies [and] skills” or else be forever dependant on others. [Since] there are pressing needs now . . . we need to do certain things [now] that will propel us to a brighter future.”

    Tags: os99, awcol, Africa

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