A Look at the First African Space Program of its Kind - Ghana’s NASA
Ghana has recently made history by successfully launching its first satellite into space. Dubbed GhanaSat-1, the small CubeSat weighing about 1 kilogram was launched from the Kennedy Space Centre on June 4 and sent into its orbit from the International Space Station on July 7. GhanaSat-1 was built by three students at the All Nations University College (ANUC) in Koforidua. The solar-powered satellite equipped with cameras will orbit the earth at a distance of about 400km and send information back to the ground station at ANUC's Space Systems and Technology Laboratory. It is the first African space program of its kind.
The work on the satellite began in 2015 and was supported by the Japanese 'Birds project' with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) providing most of the resources for the two year project. The Birds project (short for the Joint Global Multi-Nation Birds Project) is an initiative led by the Kyushu Institute of Technology, Japan. The aim of the project is to assist non-space faring developing nations in kick-starting their own space programmes. A group of students in each of the participating countries – Ghana, Nigeria, Mongolia and Bangladesh in the project's first phase – were taught the skills and knowledge necessary to carry out indigenous space technology projects, from mission planning to the design, operation and disposal of satellites.
The launch on GhanaSat-1 builds on the work that has already gone into getting the African space programme off the ground: the Ghana Space Science and Technology Institute (GSSTI) was launched by the government in 2011, while ANUC had already built and operated a CanSat – a basic device attached to a helium balloon to capture images from air – and opened an amateur ground station before participating in the Birds project. Looking forward, there are already plans in place to build GhanaSat-2 and GhanaSat-3.
Obstacles along the way
Ghana's journey to a space technology revolution hasn't been without hiccups though. Earlier this year newspapers reported that Ghana was en route to becoming the first African space program to build a spaceship launchpad – an important step towards true independence in space exploration. Construction was to begin this year in Accra in partnership with the KESHE Foundation International. However, the Ghana Atomic Energy Commission (GAEG) decided to pull out of the preliminary agreement because of a lack of scientific proof supporting the theories of Mr. Mehran Keshe, the owner of the Keshe Foundation.
There are other hurdles to overcome, too. While the launch of GhanaSat-1 made headlines internationally, it seemed that the local media was slower to pick up the story, causing the Ghanaian journalist Elizabeth Ohene to speculate whether the lukewarm reaction was down to antipathy towards science in her home country. But perhaps it boils down to skepticism about the value of African space programs for the nation as a whole: The cost of the project ($500,000) attracted some criticism, even though GhanaSat-1 was not funded by the government. In a nation where poverty still affects many, it will take solid proof of benefits to get the average Ghanaian excited about investing in a space programme.
Those involved in Ghana's space program believe that the results will speak for themselves, however. After all, the aim of this African space program is not to get involved in nuclear warfare or gaze into galaxies far away in search of extraterrestrial life forms, but to utilize the information provided by satellites to tackle on-the-ground problems – which could make all the difference in the fight against poverty.
One of the intended applications of GhanaSat-1 is to monitor illegal mining, which is a major issue in the country. The plan is also to provide practical information, such as accurate weather forecasts for the agricultural sector that employs nearly 50 percent of Ghana's population.
Other potential uses for satellite technology are countless. Satellites can be used to manage natural resources and to monitor environmental threats like water pollution and deforestation, as well as keeping an eye on natural disasters from floods to wildfires. Information collected by satellites can also contribute to better mapping, help with effective town planning, enhance internet coverage, add to national security, improve election monitoring and help to monitor the activities of extremist groups.
A clear advantage of having a home-grown space programme is to be able to build satellites that are tailored to help solve the problems that are most relevant locally. Training a new generation of scientists and engineers and building the capacity in space technology is also an avenue to advance education, create new jobs and foster national pride.
Africa's journey to space
Though a big step for Ghana, the launch of GhanaSat-1 is not the first African space program on the continent. Kenya has had a space center since 1964 and launched its first satellite Uhuru back in 1970, while the other tech-giants of the continent – Nigeria and South Africa – each have several satellite launches under their belt. Nigeria is also the first African nation to announce their intention to send a manned space mission into space by 2030. Among other African nations, Ethiopia opened the first East African astronomical observatory in 2015, Egypt launched a satellite in 2007, Algeria followed suit in 2010 and Angola is on track to launch one in 2017. The formation of a cross-national African Space Agency has begun to look like a plausible undertaking in the not too distant future.
Africa is also part of an international science project with a potential to create more enthusiasm around space technology on the continent and inspire further scientific collaboration among African nations. The Square Kilometer Array (SKA) will be the world's largest, fastest and most sensitive radio telescope in the world once finished – and Africa is playing a significant role in the realization of the project.
The SKA will be composed of an array of smaller antennas spread over long distances, with the dishes initially placed in Western Australia and South Africa. The plan is for the network to be extended further in Africa, with dishes also hosted by eight other partner countries: Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, and Zambia. Supported by hundreds of grants, students from across Africa have been able to get involved in the project, learning about the many aspects of SKA from building to using it.
Expected to be fully operational by the end of 2020, the SKA will be used to answer some of the fundamental questions of science, such as how the universe formed, the nature of dark matter and the existence of life elsewhere in the universe. So, perhaps Africa will take part in the search for extraterrestrial life forms after all. Either way one thing seems certain Africa is no longer willing to be a passive host to multitudes of Western scientists traveling to the continent to study the skies and leaving with their observations. The continent has begun its journey towards an endemic, world-class space science and technology expertise.