Kenya joins the list of African nations with space ambitions launching its home-designed satellite today (May 11).
The cube satellite will be launched from the Japanese module of the International Space Station. It was brought there by a SpaceX rocket during an April re-supply mission. The cube satellite will be utilized in various sectors including weather forecasting, food security mapping, livestock and wildlife monitoring, besides disaster management. The nanosatellite, designed by Kenyan scientists at the University of Nairobi, was developed as part of a joint program between the United Nations and Japanese space agency to support research institutions from developing countries to manufacture and improve their own space technology. The satellite reportedly has a life-span of between one year to 18 months, after which it will “de-orbit and burn up.”
This is not in fact Kenya’s first satellite. In 1970 it launched Uhuru from Malindi, southeastern Kenya, which was the world’s first earth-orbiting mission dedicated to celestial X-ray astronomy. But, according to a Vice article, the program did not benefit many Kenyans.
Innovations around satellite technologies have increasingly made it viable for low-income nations to manufacture small satellites and use them to achieve their own development goals. Across Africa, the opportunities surrounding outer space exploration has never been greater, with nations looking at space programs as a vital step to kickstart and empower innovation.
The enthusiasm around space technology also comes from the recognition that information gleaned from satellites has the potential to improve agriculture, guard against deforestation, improve disaster planning, and provide internet to rural communities. The current investments can also offset the long-term costs of purchasing and maintaining satellites from foreign governments.
As such, several African nations have manufactured, launched, and operated their own programs to power their own scientific, technological and military ambitions. These include countries like South Africa, Egypt, Nigeria, Algeria, and Morocco. The African Union also passed an African space policy in 2017, calling for the development of a continental outer-space program and the adoption of a framework to use satellite communication for economic progress.
For Kenya, the deployment of the satellite heralds a historic moment especially as it competes with neighboring nations like Ethiopia which aim to become a scientific hub and have already funded a multimillion-dollar space observatory and research center. But that competitive gap could only be closed with the government allocating more money for research and development activities and stopping advanced expertise from leaving the country—a step Kenyans officials are now promising to undertake in the coming years.