Security, telecommunications, meteorology, navigation, resource and territory management, climate...Africans are sending more and more satellites into space. Why this sudden African ambition for space power?
By Hicham Alaoui
It’s the African version of the space race.
Since Egypt launched its first satellite in 1988, eleven countries on the continent have followed suit and others are preparing to join the small and exclusive African club of space “powers.”
A total of 41 African satellites, three of which are the result of multilateral cooperation and the rest belonging to Egypt, South Africa, Nigeria, Algeria, Ghana, Morocco, Kenya, Rwanda, Angola, Sudan and Ethiopia, are now in orbit, although none of them were launched from African soil.
But what is the use of these expensive machines for a continent that is home to the world’s poorest of the poor?
Like most other satellites from the United States, Europe, Russia, China, India or the United Arab Emirates, most of these African machines are designed to provide services to the people.
For example, they are used to manage natural resources and facilitate relief in the event of a crisis.
They are also used to collect data to help make decisions, but also to transmit information.
These satellites are therefore used for a variety of purposes.
Remote sensing satellites are used to monitor the earth’s surface, oceans and atmosphere and the changes they undergo.
Today, these tools play an essential role in supporting efforts to protect the global environment on a daily basis.
In remote areas, for example, they are used in telemedic services that compensate for the lack of public health centres.
That was one of the reasons why Angola had launched its first satellite in 2017.
Observation satellites are useful during natural disasters.
In 2013, when South Africa was hit by huge floods, the South African National Space Agency provided the authorities with crucial data that enabled it to provide a rapid response to the population.
In Kenya, the first satellite, launched in 2017, provides the government, through its space agency, with continuous meteorological data.
In its fight against the major droughts of 2013, the country skillfully used these data to discover an aquifer in the soil of one of the most affected regions.
In Nigeria, the space agency is providing security forces with satellite imagery to track Boko Haram jihadists or insurgents in the oil-rich Delta region in the south of the country.
Satellites also have indispensable capabilities for monitoring and controlling the territory.
They enable armed forces to operate with greater precision and under better security conditions.
Morocco caused a sensation when it launched an observation satellite in November 2017 called Mohammed VI A.
The satellite is capable of taking pictures with a 70 cm resolution.
The satellite was launched by Arianespace and built by Thales and Airbus.
Its use is intended exclusively for civilian purposes, which raises suspicion among her neighbours.
A year later, its twin, the Mohammed VI B Earth observation satellite was launched from Kourou in French Guiana.
That satellite will be used for cartographic and cadastral activities, land use planning, monitoring of agricultural activities, prevention and management of natural disasters, monitoring of environmental changes and desertification, as well as border and coastal surveillance, Arianespace said.
The two Mohammed VI satellites have made high-resolution satellite images available to ministries and public institutions for 2019.
These images covered an area of 250,000 km and made it possible to produce more than 370 thematic maps, according to an official report.
The two Moroccan satellite vehicles provide a database of the latest generation to ministerial departments and various public institutions.
This is what emerges from the first official report on the assessment of these two satellites since their launch into orbit.
To date, the two satellites have contributed to the development of cartography and several other civilian fields.
While making it possible to refine data and topographical surveys, they have made it possible to accurately delimit agricultural land, develop the search for water sources and intensify the fight against desertification.
In terms of infrastructure, the satellite images they have provided have contributed to a better knowledge of urban perimeters and are now helping to combat the shrinking of agricultural areas and uncontrolled urbanization.
In the field of the environment, these satellite data provide a precise knowledge of the Moroccan coastline and a more accurate understanding of changes in the structure of marine resources.
This African space rush seems so important today that it has become a continental obsession.
In January 2019, the African Union (AU) endorsed the creation of an African Space Agency (ASA), based in Cairo, with the clear objective of making the continent a world space power.
In other words: “Africa is also reaching for the stars and arming itself to conquer space.”