Why Africa Should Expand its Mega-Satellite Constellation Capacity

Since 1988, Africa has spent approx. USD$4 billion towards the launch of 41 satellites (excluding the cost of the RASCOM-QAF 1R replacement). 30 of these satellites fall into the Small Satellite market. The majority of satellites owned by African institutions typically involves satellites with less than 600kgs in fueled mass and 24 of these satellites have less than 200kg fueled mass. The reason for the interest in the miniaturized satellites? In a nutshell, they offer cheaper design alternatives, coupled with the ease of mass production. They are also significantly more versatile in certain applications, owing to their reduced size. For example, they are the satellite of choice for low data rate communications, being launched in large multi-coverage constellations in Low Earth Orbit (LEO).

It comes as no surprise then that small satellites are growing increasingly popular amongst developing countries, no less within the region, for the accessibility. The growth of the small satellite industry is evident in commercial as well as large programs which exhibit steady growth. In 2019, 5 African countries launched 8 satellites, 6 of which were small satellites. It is expected that by the year 2024, 19 African countries would have launched additional satellites into space. These small, sometimes called nano-satellites, are really driving the African space program, especially in line with the African Union’s (AU) science and technology ambitions which are expected to reap huge benefits for the continent. Most importantly through the AU Science, Technology and Innovation Science Strategy for Africa – 2024 (STISA-2024).

Small satellites are categorized as space systems of up to 600 kg (falling into the categories of Minisatellites, Microsatellite, Nanosatellite, Picosatellite, and Femto Satellites). They range across different applications (Satellite Communications, Imaging & Earth Observations, Space Situational Awareness, and Technology Development), and have different end users (Government & Defense, and Civil & Commercial). Of the 8 satellites launched in 2019, 6 were small satellites (3 Nanosatellites, 2 Microsatellites, and 1 Picosatellite).

Satellite communications mega-constellations are on the rise, however this growing interest is not without its challenges and uncertainties. The biggest risks in the small sat interest in the coming years are mostly ascribed to investor’s rick assessment & funding availability; Securing customers & Return on Investment (ROI); Stronger regulations; Competition from heavier satellite, and reliability. This is also further compounded by the fact that establishing a satellite service industry which is sustainable requires adequate funding. Skillset deficit is also a prominent challenge. Even though Africa has and will in future have the largest population of young people, the youth are generally not interested in pursuing careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).

You can expect more satellites to be launched despite these crises. As regards the African Small Sat market, the growth perspectives seem to point towards predominant university projects which demonstrates a capacity to operate Smallsats, also attesting to the affordability of the systems. This is also a sign of government effort to support the growth of this industry, and the contributions of the youth in satellite development. Indeed the manufacturing ability is extremely important, but also the service capability and development prospects. Despite these positive steps there is still quite a need for funding in this area.

Of the overall revenue and results, Earth Observation is the most predominant small sat use, however it is expected in the next few years this may shift to internet broadband, but ultimately, creating value for users and enabling services that drive industry development will be the ultimate determining factor. Internet coverage allows people to create capacity and this might undoubtedly be Africa’s most prolific use of small satellite solutions. CubeSats which are around 50 kg, are the most popular and are only getting bigger because of the interest for carrying larger payloads. But in future it may become less stringent to use the restricted platform, but the threshold is bound to switch to a smaller regular platform. These services are enabled through satellite mega-constellations.

Satellite mega-constellations operate in the Lower Earth Orbit which is described as the orbit located no more than 2,000 kilometers from the Earth’s surface. There is room for LEO regarding low-latency connectivity. But this does not mean that the Geostationary Orbit will become redundant, rather, and on the other hand GEO will remain an asset for broadband, because of its efficiency and coverage as well as less-sophisticated ground segments. Nevertheless, the LEO offers the most advantageous orbital resource to come and deserves much policy intervention to regulate, owing to the fact that it is a finite, scare resource.

At the end of the day, whether Smallsats are launched in a constellation or as individual space systems, they offer a cost-effective alternative to traditional space objects, and would allow Africa the opportunity to release its potential in various areas of interest including but not limited to communications, global positioning and navigation, and Earth observation.

Africa would be enriched by the ability to use this new technology to enable users through diverse services, to protect assets within the value chain, or simply to monitor areas of national security such as the environment and borders. These are all aspects which will have a substantial developmental impact in the African economy, and is well aligned to the African space policy which speaks towards increase of space and satellite capacity in an affordable and beneficial manner.