Space, the final frontier, and one that African nations have largely left unexplored. But with the emergence of space agencies around the continent, some intrepid space-gazers are studying ways to boldly go where few Africans have gone before.
Observers looking at Africa today will see a new reality. Satellite dishes monitor hundreds of privately owned satellites above Africa in Africa’s largest earth observation center – at the South African National Space Agency. Managing Director Raoul Hodges said a space agency is a valuable asset — and that Africa has the means to go into space. But he said such a reality is years off and will take serious planning.
“If you combined resources and you combined efforts, such as the Nigerian effort, such as the Egyptian effort, the Algerian effort, and the South African effort specifically,” he explained. “Where we have the infrastructure and prior to 1994, when we were able to integrate satellites, yes, the technical knowledge is there, and the capability is there. Is there funding? Yes, there is funding. There are some rich oil nations in Africa..” Officials with the African Union said a pan-African space agency can solve some of the continent’s earthly problems.
“It’s one of the most important cross-cutting issues that serves agriculture, serves communication, serves infrastructure, serves [the] border program, also serves demography and movement of people, serves peace and security,” said Abdul Hakim Elwaer is with the African Union. “It goes into mineral resources and future development. The idea of a space program is to develop a program that can provide the real data on the ground in Africa, all over Africa, and provide it for the policymakers to be able to develop policies and plans and strategies that are based on information, knowledge-based strategies for the future.” In South Africa, universities are also furthering space research.
At this physics lab at the University of the Witwatersrand, graduate students are using a vacuum to test tiny micro-propulsion systems that one day could be used to position smaller, less expensive satellites. It’s a small step for researcher Jonathan Lund — but he said his work could someday lead to great leaps in how normal people live their lives.
“I think, moving forward, we’re definitely going to be saying, satellites are there to support infrastructure that we rely on on a daily basis already today. So moving forward, we can actually benefit the economy by building sats and studying space,” he said.
Which brings us back to these lowly blesboks. Like many of us, they have little understanding of the complex calculations behind Africa’s burgeoning space industry. But here on African soil, scientists are looking for ways to make our lives easier — by looking to space.