GhanaSat-1, the first Ghanaian satellite

In the book Artemis written by Andy Weir, the author of the well-known The Martian, the fictitious Kenya Space Corporation has an important role. Given the level of interest about outer space in Africa, let’s look at GhanaSat-1, the first Ghanaian satellite. In 2017, Ghana, officially the Republic of Ghana, a country located along the Gulf of Guinea and Atlantic Ocean, in the subregion of West Africa, sent its first satellite, the 1-kilogram GhanaSat-1, which can take images, collect atmospheric data, measure space radiation, and transmit uploaded audio, into Low Earth Orbit (LEO). It also broadcasted the national anthem of Ghana. Bordered by the Ivory Coast in the west, Burkina Faso in the north, Togo in the east and the Gulf of Guinea and Atlantic Ocean in the south, the small country of Ghana, which means “Warrior King” in the Soninke language, has, thanks to GhanaSat-1, which was launched by a Japanese astronaut from the NanoRacks CubeSat Deployer (NRCSD) located in the Japanese Kibō module of the ISS, entered the closed club of African states in orbit.

Since 2011, the African Union (AU), a continental union founded in the early 2000s consisting of fifty-five member states located on the continent of Africa, with exception of various territories of European possessions located in Africa, wanted to accelerate the movement and created the African Space Agency. But so far, only about a dozen countries stand out, thanks to a certain financial and technical capacity, good cooperation, and a certain appetite for satellites. Nigeria, for example, has renewed its space program in 2006 and plans since 2014 to one day send a Nigerian afronaut to outer space. In parallel to the technical aspects, by projecting themselves in outer space, certain countries like Gabon or Morocco redefine their influence on Earth, in the world or on their regional area.

The African Space Agency

Africa is home to over a billion people and many of the world’s fastest growing economies, so it should come as no surprise that demand for space-based technologies and investment is growing rapidly. Indeed, demand for satellite capacity in sub-Saharan Africa is forecast to double in the coming years. In response to this growing trend, the African Union (AU) proposed the creation of an African Space Agency in 2015, a concept that has been previously raised by various African leaders such as Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir. In 2016, the AU adopted the All African Space Policy & Strategy initiative, which prompts member states to “realize an African Outer Space Programme as one of the flagship programmes of the AU Agenda”.

The African Space Agency was established by the initiative of the African Union in 2017. The agency is aimed at promoting and coordinating the development of space science across the continent for improved technological advancement. In February 2019, Egypt has won the bid to host the headquarters of the African Space Agency. “In the competitive struggle, Egypt obtained the right to host the headquarters of the African Space Agency. The decision was made by the Executive Council of the African Union, and will be endorsed by the African leaders”. The statement added that Nigeria and Ethiopia were among the main competitors for the bid to host the Agency’s headquarters. “We have no doubt that the African Space Agency will work for the benefit of the development of the entire continent, in particular, in space science, remote sensing and other areas”.

Article 4 of the STATUTE OF THE AFRICAN SPACE AGENCY on Objectives states that “The main objectives of the African Space Agency are to promote and coordinate the implementation the African Space Policy and Strategy and to conduct activities that exploit space technologies and applications for sustainable development and improvement of the welfare of African citizens. In particular, the Agency shall: a. Harness the potential benefits of space science, technology, innovation and applications in addressing Africa’s socio-economic opportunities and challenges; b. Strengthen space missions on the continent in order to ensure optimal access to space-derived data, information, services and products; c. Develop a sustainable and vibrant indigenous space market and industry that promotes and responds to the needs of the African continent; d. Adopt good corporate governance and best practices for the coordinated management of continental space activities; e. Maximize the benefits of current and planned space activities, and avoid or minimize duplication of resources and efforts; f. Engage with its users through the establishment of Communities of Practice for each of the identified user requirements; and g. Promote an African-led space agenda through mutually beneficial partnerships”.

Article 5 of the STATUTE OF THE AFRICAN SPACE AGENCY on Functions of the Agency enounces that “1. The primary function of the Agency is to Implement the African Space Policy and Strategy adopted by the AU Assembly vide the Decision Assembly/AU/Dec.589 (XXVI). In particular, the Agency shall: a. Promote and coordinate the implementation of programmes and activities approved by the African Space Council; b. Address user needs to ensure that space programmes will play a critical role in improving Africa’s economy and the quality of life of its peoples; c. Support Member States and RECs in building their space programs and coordinate space efforts across the continent; d. Enhance and facilitate access to space resources and services in an effort to leverage space-derived benefits to the whole continent; e. Support Member States and RECs in building critical infrastructure and coherently develop, upgrade and operate cutting-edge African space infrastructure; f. Coordinate development of a critical mass of African capacities in space science, technology and innovation through appropriate education and training programmes; g. Foster regional coordination and collaboration h. Promote strategic intra-continental and international partnerships; i. Strengthen research, development and innovation in space science and technology; j. Coordinate and promote Africa participation in international efforts for the peaceful use of space science and technology for the welfare of humanity; k. Raise awareness of the benefits of space programmes for Africa; l. Engage Member States in space-related activities and research in Africa with the aim of fostering cooperation and avoiding duplication of efforts; m. Take maximum advantage of national activities conducted by Member States and facilitate coordination of the activities of Member States; n. Operate on the basis of international cooperation. 2. The African Space Agency with other national and international institutions will coordinate a continent wide regulatory framework for space activities on the continent. 3. The African Space Agency will work directly with the national space agencies when interfacing with the Member States and in the co-management of space activities for the continent. 4. A common African position for multilateral engagements should be driven by the African Space Agency”.

GhanaSat-1, the first Ghanaian satellite

GhanaSat-1, which was not funded by Ghanaian public money, is the first Ghanaian satellite to be launched into outer space. It was designed and built in two years in conjunction with the Kyushu Institute of Technology‘s (one of the eighty-seven national universities in Japan) Birds-1 program, the first iteration of a multinational program called the Joint Global Multi-Nation Birds Satellite project, or BIRDS Project, to help countries build their first satellite. Four guest countries participated in the Birds-1 program: Ghana, Mongolia, Nigeria, and Bangladesh. “It has cameras on board for detailed monitoring of the coastlines of Ghana. Then, there’s an educational piece: we want to use it to integrate satellite technology into high school curriculum”.

GhanaSat-1, the first Ghanaian satellite, which was developed by a team of engineers that included Benjamin Bonsu, Ernest Teye Matey, and Joseph Quansah, was launched to the International Space Station (ISS) on a Falcon 9 rocket. It was released into outer space from the NanoRacks CubeSat Deployer (NRCSD), a device to deploy CubeSats into orbit from the International Space Station, in July 2017. GhanaSat-1 is being used to monitor environmental activities along Ghana’s coastline. GhanaSat-1 is a CubeSat, which belong to a class of research spacecraft called nanosatellites. The basic cube-shaped satellites measure ten centimetres on each side, weigh less than one and a half kilograms, and have a volume of about one litre. GhanaSat-1 was assembled and tested by students at All Nations University in Koforidua. The satellite cost about five hundred thousand dollars to manufacture and launch. Its power is generated from solar cells and stored in batteries.

SpaceX launched the satellite on its CRS-11 mission, also known as SpX-11, to the International Space Station (ISS) in June 2017. The satellite was carried in a Dragon spacecraft on a Falcon 9 rocket, launched from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center Pad 39A. This was the 100th launch from Pad 39A and the first time SpaceX reused one of its Dragon capsules. This mission also carried CubeSats from Japan, Bangladesh, Nigeria, and Mongolia. The satellite launch was broadcast live and watched by over four hundred people at All Nations University. Ghana’s president Nana Akufo-Addo applauded the launch and congratulated the team directly. GhanaSat-1 orbits the planet every ninety-two minutes at a velocity of approximatively eight kilometres per second. Ghana plans to build GhanaSat-2 and GhanaSat-3. The primary objective of GhanaSat-2 will be to monitor water pollution, illegal mining, and deforestation. That is what we can say about GhanaSat-1, the first Ghanaian satellite.