Eyeing the Stars Ethiopia’s Space Programme
Astronomers have made great strides in understanding and accessing space within the last century. In particular, the development of satellite technology has helped in the growth of technologically and economically advanced countries. This is because satellite technology assists in the development of telecommunications infrastructure and disaster preparedness, among other things. Now, Ethiopia is hoping to benefit from satellite technology through the advancement of its own space programme. The government says that this will aid the country’s aspiration towards development. However, critics say that it’s too soon for Ethiopia to pursue such an ambitious plan and that the country has other pressing concerns to manage. EBR’s Ashenafi Endale spoke to key stakeholders on either side of the debate to learn more about the country’s nascent efforts to develop a space programme – and the potential challenges and benefits that lie ahead.
Space science – the multi-disciplinary study of the physical universe beyond the Earth’s atmosphere – has proven to be a useful tool in technologically and economically advanced countries. Many of these nations have launched satellites into space, which assists in the development of telecommunications infrastructure, Earth imaging, weather forecasting and disaster preparedness.
Developing countries like Ethiopia have taken note of these multifarious benefits. That’s why the federal government is eyeing the stars and working towards an ambitious goal: to design, construct and launch the country’s first satellite into space in the next five years.
The government hopes to benefit from satellite technology, which would help improve telecommunications; disaster management; and the monitoring of mining, farming and the construction of large infrastructure projects.
Such an endeavour seems appropriate for a developing country like Ethiopia, which spends millions of dollars per year to access telecommunications-related information gathered by other satellite-launching nations.
In 2009 Ethiopia started building a privately funded astronomical observatory, joining a handful of other African nations that have their own space programmes.
Established on top of Mount Entoto, which is 3,200 metres high and located 20km outside of the capital, the observatory lies on four hectares of land. The facility consists of two metal domes, which stand out against the blue sky, starkly contrasting the surrounding green farm fields.
Both buildings have computer-controlled optical telescopes, each of which cost approximately USD5.5 million. They are part of the Entoto Observatory and Research Centre, which is the first space observatory in East Africa.
The telescopes can see up to 10 billion light years away, according to Solomon Belay (PhD), Director of the Centre. Built by the Ethiopian Space Science Society (ESSS), which was established ten years ago, the Centre was managed by an independent Board comprised of 32 government universities and one private university from 2012 until 2015.
In July 2015, the federal government took control of the Entoto Observatory and Research Centre from the ESSS. The Observatory is now subsumed under the Ministry of Science and Technology (MoST). However, the Centre didn’t put the Observatory under any directorate at the MoST. An expert who spoke to EBR on the condition of anonymity says that the Ministry is preparing a legal framework to manage it.
The government plans to expand the programme further and establish an official national space science agency. The next step will be to build a more powerful observatory in the isolated mountains around Lalibela in the Amhara Region, for which USD1 million has already been allocated. In addition to this, Ethiopian engineers have plans to test the country’s first rocket; the goal is to put a satellite in orbit around Earth by 2019/20. In fact, the Observatory signed a memorandum of understanding with the Space Technology and Science Group, a Finland-based satellite development company, to conduct a satellite feasibility study.
Solomon also confirms that he and his colleagues are busy incorporating the Centre into the Ethiopian Aerospace Institute; establishing the Ethiopian Space Science Agency; and preparing the legal frameworks for space science research, application and budget issues. Four space science research centres will also be established throughout the country – in Mekelle, Bahir Dar, Jimma and Adama – all of which will work with their respective nearby universities, according to Solomon.
There are plans to establish the Institute within the next two months, while the Agency will start operations by the end of the current fiscal year. “A budget will be allocated for both the Institute and the Agency starting next fiscal year,” Solomon told EBR. “The Institute focuses on training students in master’s- and PhD-level [coursework] in space science, while the Agency will work on the regulatory part.”
Despite its promise, Ethiopia’s space programme has faced criticism from some sceptics claiming that Ethiopia, still beset by poverty, should focus its efforts on other development goals. They say space science is a luxury for poor countries.
Some critics even go further and explain why the programme shouldn’t be developed in a hasty manner, as the country does not have enough capacity to manage it. “[It] is just a political game to draw the public’s attention,” argues Legesse Wetro (PhD), an astrophysicist who worked for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in the United States for nine years and is currently an associate professor of astrophysics at Addis Ababa University.
His criticism is particularly biting given his prominent role in the field of space science. Legesse was a leader in establishing the ESSS and is currently working with international companies in developing applicable theories, especially in mining. He is internationally renowned for his research on gamma rays, the earth’s magnetic field and pulsars theory. His new pulsar theory was published in the Journal of the International Astronomical Union.
Legesse says his critique is rooted in a pragmatic concern: space science must develop slowly because Ethiopia has limited human resources in the field. “The space programme cannot succeed just because the government wants it. Even those government bodies tasked to run the programme have little know-how on the matter,” he says. “Government might have the willingness and resources but this is also about [having a] deep knowledge of [the issue].”
However, Solomon, who once took Legesse’s class when he was studying at Addis Ababa University, thinks otherwise. “[The lack of human resources] doesn’t mean you can’t plan for the future at the same time. If we don’t plan for the future, where will we be? It’s ludicrous to think we shouldn’t continue our research and exploration,” he explains. “With satellites providing everything from maps and global positioning systems (GPS) to applications for agriculture, disaster management, healthcare in remote areas and the Internet, engaging in space science is an urgent [assignment] for developing countries like Ethiopia.” He says this is because such countries don’t have a back-up infrastructure.
Other developing countries have caught on to the importance of space in their development goals. African nations like South Africa, Nigeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria and Egypt have already invested millions of dollars to reap the benefit of space and satellite programmes.
In fact, the engagement of such African countries in space science began decades ago. In 1961, NASA built one of its Deep Space Network stations in South Africa, which supported several early robotic missions to the moon during the Apollo programme, the third US human space flight programme by NASA, from 1969 to 1972. Following this, South Africa developed its own space research projects, mostly for military purposes.
In 1970, NASA and Italian engineers launched Uhuru (which means ‘freedom’ in Swahili), the world’s first satellite dedicated to celestial X-ray astronomy, from Kenya.
More recently, Nigeria developed its own space programme. In 1999, Africa’s most populous nation established the National Space Research and Development Agency (NSRDA) and launched its first small satellite in 2003, which provides high-resolution imagery, monitors the country’s shrinking farmland, and makes cheaper wireless and Internet coverage more accessible.
The NSRDA, which has launched five satellites into space, helps the government conduct satellite-based environmental research in the Niger River Delta; develop predictive models for desertification early warning; mapping and monitoring of the impact of gully erosion in South-eastern Nigeria; and assists in settlements and major road mapping projects, as well as flood mapping in the Kainji Lake area, according to research published by the Agency in 2014.
Additionally, subsequent to the successful launch of the NigeriaSat-1, the Agency has been providing a critical and innovative collaboration for capacity building and the development of satellite technology for quantum transformation telecommunications.
According to a report published by Research and Markets, Nigeria has Africa’s largest mobile market, with more than 148 million subscribers and a penetration rate of about 107Pct in 2014. This has contributed to the country’s ability to build one of the most competitive telecommunication sectors in Africa.
The investment return on the Nigeria’s space programme extends beyond the country’s borders. In fact, as part of the disaster monitoring constellation, Nigeriasat-1 images have been used in various parts of the world for disaster management, including in the 2011 Japanese Tsunami disaster and Hurricane Katrina. In 2007, Nigeriasat-1 data was used to respond to floods in Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay, North Korea, Pakistan, China, and Vietnam.
Drawing from the experience of countries like Nigeria, government officials in Ethiopia say that enhancing space research is vital for the country, whose leaders aspire to transform its economy by using satellite technology for its advancement efforts.
“The perception towards space science and technology and the reality on the ground are opposite. The perception of the elites residing in developing nations is that investment on space science and technology is a luxury, which should be left for the developed nations,” says Terefa Waluwa, Chairman of the ESSS, explaining why Ethiopia chooses to engage in space science, citing mobile phones, agricultural activities, and aviation. “Astronomy is known as [the] mother of all sciences and opposite to [some people’s] perception, it has been an instrument of comprehensive development.”
Solomon reaffirms Tefera’s conviction. “Everything from agriculture and telecommunications to defence are being led from space and it is the right time for Ethiopia to take steps [in that direction],” he says. “Space science is not a luxury; it is a basic necessity for development.”
Studies conducted on the impact of information technology on economic growth attest to the fact that recent advances in information technology are becoming central to development agendas. This is because information technology puts forward new ways of exchanging information; conducting business; and monitoring the agriculture, industry and service sectors by providing an efficient means of using the human and institutional capabilities in the public and private sectors.
In an increasingly globalised economy, according to a study conducted by the African Development Bank (AfDB) entitled ‘Information Technology and the Challenge of Economic Development in Africa,’ information technology is one of the key determinants of the competitiveness and growth of firms and countries.
As a result, even Ethiopia, a country endowed with a large labour force and abundant natural resources, is working on expanding mobile and Internet subscription. This is because the country’s conventional sources of comparative advantage in determining its international competitiveness are diminishing.
The study conducted by AfDB testifies to this fact, stressing that the competitive and comparative advantages of developing countries are gradually being determined by access to information technology and knowledge. Hence, the comparative advantage of countries increasingly depends on man-made technologies.
Driven by the change in global dynamics, Ethiopia plans to increase the number of mobile phone subscribers from 38.8 million to 103.6 million in the next five years. Additionally, the country aspires to increase the number of Internet users from the current 9.4 million to 56 million by 2019/20, the year that marks the end of the second phase of the Growth and Transformation Plan.
“Such [lofty goals] are why the country is pursuing space science, which will help in providing cheap and reliable satellite services,” argues Solomon. “Otherwise Ethiopia could not handle the increasing cost of satellite rentals from developed nations.”
Tsegaye Ketema, Director of Meteorological Services Development at the National Meteorological Agency, explains the additional benefits of engaging in space science. “Although it is unlikely to curb natural disasters and hazards, the advantage of utilising remote sensing and satellite products includes enhancing the early warning system, thereby minimising the associated risks,” he says. “The other benefit will be improving and enhancing weather forecasting, which is useful for agriculture and economic developmental activities.”
Legesse, however, argues that there is a simpler and cheaper way of engaging in space science: “Given the fact that the location of Ethiopia, which is at the perfect position on the equator that is suitable for satellite [launching], the government can consider the option of building launching pads with less investment and rent it to other countries instead of launching satellites with huge investment.”
Despite arguments on either side, one thing remains clear: developing a space science programme, while ambitious and expensive, may prove to be a unique tool in Ethiopia’s development efforts. Whether it proves fruitful or futile, however, has yet to be seen and depends largely on the country’s ability to, quite literally, launch into unfamiliar territory. EBR
4th Year • January 16 2016 – February 15 2016 • No. 35