What's Behind Africa's Increasing Drive to Launch Satellites?
Twenty-two years after putting the first African satellite into orbit, the continent's satellite fleet currently stands at 44. With Africa's most recent satellite launch taking place in June 2021, the next few years may see more launches on the continent.
The consultancy Space in Africa recently reported that 44 satellites have been sent into orbit by 13 African countries since the launch of the continent's first satellite in 1999. At the time, South Africa had launched its SunSat-1 satellite into space.
According to the Space in Africa report, a further 125 satellites are being developed by 23 countries on the continent, and all of them are expected to be launched before 2025.
The survey refers to "new opportunities" that have emerged "around satellite constellations on the continent, with Egypt, South Africa, and Tunisia leading various initiatives" on the matter.
"While Africa is currently unable to launch satellites from the continent, new opportunities are now emerging for foreign players to capitalise on several launch sites available on the continent. The [space] industry made [a] revenue of USD 7.37 billion in 2019 and is expected to generate over USD 10.24 billion in revenue by 2024", the report says.
The report came as Khalid Manjoo, co-founder and CTO of the South African start-up Astrofica that was founded in 2017, said that the goal of the firm is to use the space industry to tackle Africa's pressing issues, including food and national security.
Manjoo insisted that Astrofica may launch its first constellation of satellites by the end of 2022, which he said "will provide decision makers with critical data sets [in] near real time". He expressed hope that the data will be used for monitoring crop yields or tracking the use of fertilisers, as well as helping governments with water management.
"The satellites that we put up in space, it's cool stuff, but it's not necessarily the end goal; the end goal for Astrofica is to deal with the challenges and problems that we would like to solve. They cannot be solved using purely terrestrial systems, they need these critical space-based insights", the Astrofica CTO stressed.
He noted that Astrofica seeks to launch its first satellite on board an American SpaceX rocket, a Russian Soyuz rocket, or a Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle in India.
Manjoo was echoed by Bryan Dean, CEO of the South African company Dragonfly Aerospace, who makes imaging systems for satellites and is currently developing its own satellite constellation.
Dean asserted that "the new space industry has a lot of opportunity because there's a lot of growth".
According to him: "You are now able to launch more satellites for the same amount of money than you were in the past, and a system of satellites in orbit is far more powerful than a single satellite because they work together and combine the data".
Dean added that his company is wrapping up a 3,000-square-metre satellite manufacturing facility in the South African town of Stellenbosch, which will have an annual capacity to build up to 48 satellites.
Minoo Rathnasabapathy, a South Africa-born space research engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), however, told CNN that the continent's space industry has yet to resolve a number of challenges, including a lack of resources.
"When you consider the US or Europe, it's really apples and oranges. In the US we see a lot of private industry and a lot of private funding and we're seeing NASA and ESA [the European Space Agency] be able to tap into that funding. Whereas in Africa, we're just not there yet and that's completely understandable given other priorities of the countries", she claimed.
Rathnasabapathy said that despite "huge amounts of investments", countries are "slowly starting to understand that the investment in space today is actually for the sustainability and prosperity of your country and your region in the years to come".
SES Networks Africa Vice President Caroline Kamaitha has, meanwhile, suggested that African countries want to be part of the global space satellite race because they need cheaper, high-speed internet.
"Governments are taking a really huge step to ensure that their people in those different countries are able to get connectivity", she said in an interview with the news website Quartz.
She mentioned "landlocked" nations that "do not have access to undersea cables and have to go through multiple countries to get connectivity". Kamaitha added that "there is still demand for good connectivity in those markets and [a] satellite is an answer".