By Ngagne Diouf
After two decades during which Egypt and South Africa were African space pioneers, with NILESAT-101 in 1998 and SUNSAT in 1999 respectively, several countries on the continent are playing catchup, applying to join club of space powers.
The latest to date is Ethiopia, which since December 20, 2019 has become the 11th African country to send a machine into space.
The 41st African satellite, ETRSS-1, launched from the Chinese space station Taiyuan, in Shanxi Province, is a 72 kg multi-spectral spacecraft.
Its command and control centre, however, is based at the Entoto Observatory and the Space Science Research Centre (EORC) north of the capital Addis Ababa.
The remote sensing spacecraft is being positioned at 80 degrees of latitude around Ethiopia and East African countries and will operate from space at about 700 kilometres above earth.
ETRSS-1 is the eighth satellite launched in 2019 by an African country and the 99th in the world.
It is the result of cooperation between China and Ethiopia through the Chinese Academy of Space Technology (CAST) and the Ethiopian Space Science and Technology Institute (ESSTI).
This cooperation includes a competence transfer clause to strengthen the capacity of local expertise and develop satellites and other space technologies.
Some 20 young Ethiopians have been trained in China to provide data interpretation and maintenance.
“After the launch of ETRSS-1, we will try to be autonomous, using our own system, perhaps for the third or fourth satellite,” vowed the Ethiopian Minister of Technology and Innovation, Getahun Mekuria, at the satellite launch in front of an audience of Chinese and Ethiopian officials and aviation experts.
The overall cost of the ETRSS-1 project is estimated at $8 million.
Beijing provided the $6 million for the design, construction and in-orbit delivery of the satellite, while the Ethiopian authorities provided the $2 million for the Entoto Space Observatory ground station facilities.
This third East African satellite, after Kenya’s 1KUNS-PF (2018) and Rwanda’s RwaSat-1 (September 2019), is intended to “provide all necessary data on climate change and weather phenomena for agriculture, forestry and natural resource conservation activities.”
The launch of ETRSS-1 will be “a major step in our historic journey to prosperity,” Ethiopian Deputy Prime Minister Demeke Mekonnen said on December 20.
With Ethiopia’s entry into the space age, the continent now has 11 countries that have launched a satellite into space.
But before that, Egypt, South Africa, Morocco, Algeria, Nigeria, Angola, Ghana, Kenya, Rwanda and Sudan had already began paving the way for this since 1998.
“Given the growing international interest in the continent, it is now high time to measure Africa’s potential in terms of 21st century aviation and space technologies,” Sékou Ouédraogo, president of the African Aeronautics and Space Organization (AASO) said.
According to the author of the book “The African Space Agency, a vector for development” published in 2015, one of the priority challenges of the continent is the implementation of partnerships in aeronautics and space sciences through local expertise and those of the African diaspora for the benefit of the continent.