In August 1963, the first satellite telephone conversation in history took place between U.S. President John Fitzgerald Kennedy (1917 – 1963) and Nigerian Prime Minister Abubakar Tafawa Balewa (1912 – 1966). More than fifty years after this phone call, anecdotal in its content but highly symbolic, Nigeria announced in 2016 that it wanted to send a man to space by 2030.
Nigeria is entering the space age, but these ambitions have sparked controversy: some believe that the money would be better invested in the fight against poverty. And this in a country where seventy percent of the population lives on less than a dollar a day. Indeed, Nigerians face difficulties in everyday life, especially the frequent blackouts which force many Nigerian companies and institutions to resort to generators.
Notable launches from the Nigerian space program
Nigeria’s National Space Policy was approved in 2001 and resulted in the launch of Nigeria’s first satellite, NigeriaSat-1, on September 27, 2003.
The primary objectives of the Nigeriasat-1 were to give early warning signals of environmental disaster; to help detect and control desertification in the northern part of Nigeria; to assist in demographic planning; to establish the relationship between malaria vectors and the environment that breeds malaria and to give early warning signals on future outbreaks of meningitis using remote sensing technology; to provide the technology needed to bring education to all parts of the country through distant learning; and to aid in conflict resolution and border disputes by mapping out state and International borders.
NigComSat-1, a Nigerian satellite built in 2004, was Nigeria’s first communication satellite. It was launched on 13 May 2007, aboard a Chinese Long March 3B carrier rocket, from the Xichang Satellite Launch Centre in China. The spacecraft was operated by NigComSat and the Nigerian Space Agency, NASRDA. On 11 November 2008, NigComSat-1 failed in orbit after running out of power due to an anomaly in its solar array. It was based on the Chinese DFH-4 satellite bus, and carries a variety of transponders: 4 C band; 14 Ku band; 8 Ka band; and 2 L band. It was designed to provide coverage to many parts of Africa, and the Ka-band transponders would also cover Italy.
On 10 November 2008, the satellite was reportedly switched off for analysis and to avoid a possible collision with other satellites. According to Nigerian Communications Satellite Limited, it was put into “emergency mode operation in order to effect mitigation and repairs”. The satellite eventually failed after losing power on 11 November 2008.
On 24 March 2009, the Nigerian Federal Ministry of Science and Technology, NigComSat Ltd. and CGWIC signed another contract for the in-orbit delivery of the NigComSat-1R satellite. NigComSat-1R was also a DFH-4 satellite, and the replacement for the failed NigComSat-1 was successfully launched into orbit by China in Xichang on December 19, 2011. The satellite according to Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan which was paid for by the insurance policy on NigComSat-1 which de-orbited in 2009, would have a positive impact on national development in various sectors such as communications, internet services, health, agriculture, environmental protection and national security.
Nigeria successfully launched NigeriaSat-X, the first African designed and built satellite placed into orbit, on August 17, 2011. NigeriaSat-X was launched with another small satellite, NigeriaSat-2, from Yasny in southern Russia. NigeriaSat-2, Nigeria’s second satellite, was built as a high-resolution earth satellite by Surrey Space Technology Limited, a United Kingdom-based satellite technology company. It has 2.5-metre resolution panchromatic (very high resolution), 5-metre multispectral (high resolution, NIR red, green and red bands), and 32-metre multispectral (medium resolution, NIR red, green and red bands) antennas, with a ground receiving station in Abuja.
This satellite is the result of a transfer training agreement between the National Space Research and Development Agency (NASRDA) and Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd, a UK-based satellite manufacturer. United. As part of the project, 26 young scientists from NASRDA worked on the satellite for 18 months, under the supervision of experts in Surrey.
NigeriaSat-X is used for resource management, and country mapping with the aim of contributing to food security through crop monitoring, urban planning as well as disaster management. It also facilitates the development of Nigeria’s space capabilities and technical skills for new technologies.
Nigeria, a major player in the spatialization of the African continent
In January 2019, the African Union (AU) endorsed the creation of an African Space Agency, thus sending a clear message to the rest of the world: Africa is also looking towards the stars, and is arming itself for it space conquest.
The 25-year national space mission roadmap, approved by the government in 2006, aimed to produce a Nigerian astronaut by 2015; launch a satellite made in Nigeria between 2018 and 2030, and be part of the lunar mission by 2030.
Starting from afar, the continent is in a hurry to catch up. Of the 31 African satellites launched since 1998, forty percent have been in the past three years. Along with Egypt, which will host the headquarters of the African Space Agency this year, Nigeria and South Africa are counted as the continent’s heavyweights. The latter was chosen to host one of the two sites where the Square Kilometer Array will be deployed, the world’s largest radio telescope developed to probe the far reaches of space.
In Nigeria, the space agency provides security forces with satellite images to track down Boko Haram jihadists or insurgent groups raging in the oil-producing Delta region in the south of the country. The Nigerian agency, which turns 20 in 2019, has also regularly supported the federal government during the various elections, by assisting the various independent national commissions in their electoral mapping mission, in order to ensure that isolated populations are involved in the democratic process.
While their small number might seem anecdotal in the light of the titanic space projects deployed by the Americans SpaceX or Amazon, African observation satellites offer invaluable information to countries often lacking in infrastructure: in remote areas, telemedicine services enabled by in-orbit devices compensate for the lack of hospitals.