How far with Nigeria’s space dream?
Space exploration used to be a luxurious show of technological might between the United States of America and the defunct Soviet Union until developed nations realised the potential of space technology in addressing real-life challenges and improving the conditions of living on earth.
Developing nations, including Nigeria, followed suit, committing their limited resources at a smaller but significant scale to exploit outer space programmes for socio-economic gains, as well as national pride among the committee of nations.
Minister of Science and Technology, Dr. Ogbonnaya Onu, had in 2016, announced plans by Nigeria to send an astronaut into space by 2030, as part of its drive to develop a world-class space industry.
Indeed, in recent times several countries, including United Arab Emirates (UAE), India and China, have made giant strides in the race to space. The United States (U.S.) has also recorded major breakthrough in her plans to send tourists to space with the splashing down of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft in the Gulf of Mexico on August 2, successfully completing a test flight and crossing the finish line of the decade-long commercial crew programme.
According to the 2020 African Space Industry Annual Report, made available to The Guardian by Space in Africa, which provided analyses on the growing demand for space technologies and data on the continent, Africa has spent over $4 billion on satellite development and launch so far.
Despite the ongoing global pandemic, Africa invested more money in space and satellite industry in 2020, as demand for space data continued to increase at an exponential rate on the continent.
In its 2019 industry report, Space in Africa reported that the industry was over $7 billion of annual revenues and projected it to grow at a 7.3 per cent compound annual growth rate to exceed $10 billion by 2024.
According to analysis, 2019 was the best year in the history of the African space industry with over $717 million spent on satellite projects. In the same year, governments and institutions from five African countries launched eight new satellites, bringing the total number of African satellites to arrive in orbit to 41, while the number of African countries with at least one satellite in space increased to 11.
With more satellites being developed by institutions across the continent, more African countries are joining the league. It is estimated that by 2024, at least 19 African countries would have launched a satellite and the total number of African satellites would reach 110.
According to the 2020 industry report, satellite programmes on the continent faced great hurdles in terms of proper budgetary allocations, disruption in production and logistics, and unstable international outlook as a result of COVID-19.
As of July 2020, 19 African countries have established or began the process of creating a space programme. Of these 19 States, 15 have signed the Outer Space Treaty, 14 have signed the Rescue Agreement, 12 have signed the Liability Convention, four have signed the Registration Convention, and only Morocco has signed the Moon Agreement.
While, other countries are making efforts to advance in space exploration, Nigeria, despite establishing and investing billions of naira on the development of the National Space Research and Development Agency (NASRDA) is redundant.
Currently, Nigeria has three functional satellites that are orbiting the earth, delivering important data and driving social-economic development across various sectors of the country’s economy.
From an analysis, technology companies in Nigeria are doing a lot, varying from backend programming to payment platforms, software development, robotics, internet of things, artificial intelligence and many more, which were spinoffs of space exploration and commercial markets.
However, NASRDA, given the mandate to oversee space activities in Nigeria, dominates satellite launches in Africa with ten satellite launches, space policies and operations among others, and operates through various sub-centres and laboratories around the country.
These centres include the Centre for Basic Space Science (CBSS), Centre for Satellite Technology Development (CSTD), Centre for Atmospheric Research (CAR), Centre for Space Science and Technology Education (CSSTE) also called the African Regional Centre for Space Science and Technology Education in English (ARCSSTEE), Centre for Geodesy and Geodynamics, and National Centre for Remote Sensing.
Meanwhile, the fundamental goal of Nigeria’s space programme was to sustain development and security, including disaster and environmental monitoring, scientific research and development, human capacity development and security intelligence.
NASRDA is the principal space intelligence team collaborating with both the Nigerian military and foreign military aid agencies working to eliminate Boko Haram insurgents in West Africa.
The agency had produced a 10-metre digital elevation simulation map and vegetation density map of Sambisa Forest, using NigeriaSat-X to assist the Nigerian military in combating the dreaded Boko Haram sect, who at some point, overran several towns in North-Eastern Nigeria.
Meanwhile, in external military operations, NASRDA produced data and satellite images of South-West Mali during the civil war between Southern and Northern Mali in 2012. The topographic map provided the West African peace-keeping soldiers with geographical knowledge of the crisis zone.
Ultimately, the satellite images contributed to successful military intervention in Mali. NASRDA also conducted image mapping and terrain analysis of the Dargol Area of Niger Republic, the scene of the 2013 Nigerian Airforce jet crash.
According to data obtained by The Guardian, the space agency donated over 4000 satellite images estimated to be worth N3 billion ($8.3 million), to Nigerian universities and research institutions, using NigeriaSat-1 alone. In all, NigeriaSat-1 directly contributed over N10.5 billion ($29 million) to Nigeria’s economy within its first nine years in orbit.
With the launch of NigeriaSat-2 and X in August 2011, NASRDA commenced the second phase of resource inventory mapping for the government, and completed a detailed resource inventory mapping in South-West and North-Central Nigeria excluding Benue State, at a scale of 1:50,000, which was estimated to be worth about N5 billion ($13.8 million) upon completion.
The other part of Nigeria’s earth observation satellite programme by the agency involved supporting universities and research institutions with free data for academic research. NASRDA was said to have donated about N4.5 billion ($12.4 million) worth of images from NigeriaSat-X to 35 Nigerian universities.
However, despite NASRDA’s achievements in the space sector, after huge investments and budgetary allocations to ensure far-reaching and productive use of the satellites in national mapping, and surveillance in the troubled North-Eastern region, among others, Nigeria continued to face high-security challenges and insurgency.
A majority of Nigeria’s budget allocation for space goes to NASRDA. As of December 2019, President Buhari approved a budget for space that is nearly 20 per cent of the total budget for the Federal Ministry of Science and Technology (FMST).
In the 2020 budget, $59.26 million was allocated to space activities in Nigeria. NASRDA got $44.18 million, which was roughly 75 per cent of the total budget for space. NigComSat, the Nigerian state-owned satellite operator, was allocated $9.54 million, which was roughly 16 per cent of the released funds.
The Defense Space Administration, which focuses on military applications for space, received 9 per cent of the total budget for space, totalling to $5.48 million.
Amid the tough economic times, the Nigerian government revisited a 2014 report, which made multiple recommendations that were never enacted. Among these recommendations were transitioning NigComSat to a fully commercial venture, therefore suspending any government funding.
However, if Nigeria would reach its goal of launching a Nigerian satellite into space on a Nigerian rocket, it will have to dramatically increase funding to its space programme by orders of magnitude. Nonetheless, doing so may cause some backlash from the masses, given to previous funding that did not impact their lives directly.
Meanwhile, speaking with The Guardian, on its achievements in 2020, Head, Media and Corporate Communications, NASRDA, Felix Ale, said at the instance of COVID-19, the agency produced Foot Operated Hand Washing Machine and an Automated Sanitisation Booth, to ensure that all staff of the agency and every user had proper hygiene, perfectly disinfected and are able to keep to all COVID-19 guidelines.
According to him, the agency instituted a Quick-Win Project grant, through which 25 Projects have been approved and funded, with a completion period of three to six months, noting that the projects were targeted at solving specific problems and producing products that can be commercialised.
He said: “Among the Quick-Win Projects completed by the agency include ‘GSM/GPRS+GPS SmartShoe, a smart emergency system footwear, embedded with a global tracking system to support security and health services, which combines the capabilities of Embedded Systems Technology, Global Positioning Systems (GPS) and Global System for Mobile Communication (GSM) to provide global tracking of individuals whose whereabouts need to be determined.
“Also, the agency invented a Modular Satellite for Training (MOST), which replicates a satellite platform and was designed to function like a real satellite. It has some subsystems like camera, solar array system, batteries, GPS, gyroscope, pressure sensor, temperature sensor, and a wireless transceiver and its solar array configuration has the ability to detect the movement of the sunrays.
“We also invented the N2 satellite platform using bio-waste/metal nanoparticles reinforced epoxy composites, which demonstrates the ability to prepare activated carbon from locally available groundnut shell bio-waste, synthesise and characterise metal nanoparticles from their relevant precursors to formulate hybrid positions for use in fabricating a replica of N2 satellite bus structure.”
NASRDA also developed electrode material for super-capacitor energy storage for application in the satellite power system. According to Ale, super-capacitors have become a practical alternative to chemical batteries as a rechargeable energy storage medium, noting that for space use, they could support high power demanding payloads and subsystems at a much higher specific power than conventional rechargeable batteries, and would boost the satellite building ambition of the nation and be a source of revenue when it is finally produced.
The agency also embarked on a QuadCopter Swarm Project (QUSP) aimed at developing a Swarm of UAVs, also known as Quadcopters, to carry out autonomous surveillance over a given area. This, NASRDA said would be achieved with minimal human interaction and would be conducted in a coordinated pattern, and would work collectively to achieve specific goals in areas of security, agriculture, and disaster management, among others.
The agency also embarked on the research of NASRDA HerdTrack, aimed at developing a satellite-enabled tracking system for the prevention of cattle theft, and to install LoRaWANIoT gateways to support remote monitoring.
As opposed to previous tracking solutions, the project will use both satellite and LoRa network to enable reliable monitoring from any location in Nigeria and its expected benefits include improve national security through the mitigation of herdsmen and farmers conflict and encouraging socio-economic development through sustainability in the production of beef, milk and butter among others.
Meanwhile, ongoing Quick-Win Projects, which are expected to be completed this year, include researches on the Effects of High Radiofrequency Radiation Exposure on Wistar Rats, Comparative Research Analysis on Performance of Mild Steel and Manganese Designed Waveguide for Ku Band Satellite Transponder, and Food for the Nigerian Astronaut.
Other projects include Security Surveillance System Using RFID and Image Processing Technologies, Design and Development of a Real-Time Control Centre for Space Exploration and Education, Design and Development of Satellite and RF Transmitter Tracking System Algorithm for Fixed and Mobile Station Receivers, N-Track (Nigeria-SAT Track), and Generic Satellite Power System Module among others.
However, the agency on December 3, 2020, during the Annual Media Conference, unveiled NigeriaEduSAT-2, a small satellite built by a Nigerian engineer/scientist in Nigeria with all the parts fabricated in the country, as a replacement for NigeriaEduSAT-1, launched in 2017. This is the first made in Nigeria satellite, which is in line with the 25 Year Roadmap for the implementation of the Nigeria Space Policy and Programs (NSPP) and Executive Order No.5.
Meanwhile, the agency disclosed plans to invest more in research and development in the area of building of NigeriaSAT-3, which would replace NigeriaSAT-2 and a synthetic aperture radar satellite to complement the optical imager satellites this year.