In 2013 a growing trend can be observed on the African continent: the advance of already established and new space programs.
–. While some question the need for African space programs, policy makers and scientist in countries like Nigeria, South Africa and Ethiopia maintain that they will contribute to scientific development and the transformation to knowledge-based economies.
South Africa already identified the need of a space exploration in 1996, under the leadership of the late Nelson Mandela. Today the South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO) operates the South African Large Telescope. As the name implies it is one of the largest of its kind. As astronomer Nicola Loaring explained to CNN:
“The site is in an ideal location because there is very little light pollution so the skies are extremely dark.”
With the planned start of construction of the Square Kilometer Array (SKA) in 2018, it is likely that South Africa will remain the continent’s leading nation in space exploration. The international project will create a radio telescope array made of 3,000 individual radio telescopes in South Africa and Australia.
Meanwhile one of the newcomers to space exploration in Africa is Ethiopia. In October it opened an observatory in the Entoto mountains close to the capital of Addis Ababa. Run by the Ethiopian Space Science Society (ESSS) it is the largest observatory in East Africa. The observatory director Solomon Belay told Phys.org that the endeavor faced sceptics in Ethiopia and abroad, who questioned the feasibility of the project. But Solomon is convinced that promoting science will support development of the countries key agriculture sector:
“If the economy is strongly linked with science, then we can transform a poor way of agriculture into industrialisation and into modern agriculture,”
Solomon told Phys.org.
Nigeria`s National Space Research and Development Agency (NASRDA) was established in 1999 and launched its first satellite in 2003. With NigComSat the country also has an independent company charged to run the commercial and business operations of communication satellites. In 2011 with Chinese support, it launched three satellites and a spaceport in Russia. BBC notes that the launch of the satellites would boost cost-effective wireless and internet coverage for Nigerians. Furthermore it would allow the country to explore new commercial opportunities and help it to monitor food production, deforestation and natural disasters.
Sending men into space?
For now Space programs in Africa are not focused on getting men into space, as Professor Nithaya Chetty of South Africa’s space agency told Okay Africa. According to Chetty the importance of African space programs is to be understood differently:
“African governments are finally coming around to understand the critical importance of science as an instrument for development. Training in astronomy, and training in computing and engineering leads to skills that are very wide ranging and are transferable to other disciplines.”