In mid-August, Nigeria launched the first satellite designed and built by Africans. I learned about the efforts of the country to establish an effective space agency while participating in a 2009 international workshop in Benin, Nigeria’s next-door neighbor, that addressed improving science for coastal zone management on the continent under climate change.
Satellite imagery is critical to this task. Only by closely monitoring land and sea changes from space can the changes be tracked, predictions developed, contingency plans put in place and disasters effectively addressed.
During this conference, which was well attended by representatives of African countries, particularly Nigerians, the need for real-time monitoring of conditions on the earth’s surface in the region became very evident. While imagery from European, Asian and U.S. satellites is useful, the ability to target regional needs by persons who also understand these areas on the ground is necessary for full effectiveness.
Nigeria has been building a very capable space agency, for starters, by making its staff’s compensation and working conditions competitive with those of space agencies elsewhere. After all, scientists from Africa have a history of being involved outside of Africa in space science. For example, Dr Cheikh Modibo Diarra of Mali worked at NASA on programs such as Magellan (the Venus probe, Ulysses (the sun's pole), Galileo (Jupiter), the Mars Observer and the Mars Pathfinder. Now Nigeria can compete for their talents.
The Nigerian satellite was built in the United Kingdom under contract with the Nigerian Space Research and Development Agency, with the participation of 26 Nigerian engineers, who spent 18 months in England helping build the satellite. The satellite was launched from southern Russia.
Nigeria’s space policy aims at producing an astronaut, building a satellite entirely in Nigeria and being part of the moon mission all by 2030.
The initiative began under President Olusegun Obasanjo and is strongly supported by current President Goodluck Johnson, himself a scientist. The remote sensing capabilities in Africa are significantly increasing and Nigerian satellite imagery at the best current commercial levels will be made available to other countries in the region.
Nigeria — and West Africa, as a whole — has sensitive environmental conditions both at the edge of the sea, where a low-lying coastal region is very vulnerable to flooding and sea level rise, and the edge of the desert, where available grazing lands are under threat.
The head of the Nigerian Space agency, Dr. S. O. Mohammed, notes that the boost these satellites give African capabilities in remote sensing will significantly improve the capabilities for natural resource management.
The agency’s budget is U.S. $50 million and it has about 40 Nigerians at universities around the world completing PhDs in space-related science. When we see those numbers of future high-level scientists, it should inspire us in the U.S. to re-double our efforts to address the small numbers of African Americans in the science, technical engineering and math fields.
Brad Brown is the first vice president of the Miami-Dade NAACP. He is also a contractor with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, where he works on African coastal and marine projects. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Photo: Brad Brown