Nigeria missing as space race gathers momentum
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.
Also, an English business magnate and billionaire, Richard Branson, plans to fly into space on a Virgin Galactic rocket ship early next year. Virgin Galactic Holdings Incorporation said Branson’s trip to space hinges on the success of two upcoming test flight programmes.
The company competes with billionaire-backed ventures such as Blue Origin that are vying to usher in a new era of space tourism, racing to be the first to offer sub-orbital flights to civilian space travelers.
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.
But the Head, Corporate Communications, NASRDA, Dr. Felix Alle, disagrees. “We are not moribund. We have been doing a lot especially in providing strategic information to the military on the location of insurgents and militants. We are also helping in the fight against corruption be providing basic information. Also, we just completed our space museum,” Alle said.
The Guardian learnt that as part of efforts by the Federal Government to make NASRDA functional, a physicist and astronomer, Dr. Francis Chizea, was in May 2020 appointed as the new Director General and Chief Executive Officer of NARSDA.
Why are other countries advancing their space programmes? According to studies, technology and innovation drive down costs; satellites can help support development efforts through things like monitoring weather conditions, assisting security operations in conflict zones, support the agriculture sector and aiding disaster planning.
Also, several studies indicate that scientific and technological advances and innovations are fundamental to sustained economic and human development. It has been shown that space exploration programmes offer significant potential socio-economic benefits.
Additionally, space missions snatch pieces of other worlds and bring them back to Earth. United States Aeronautic Space Agency (NASA) on July 30, 2020 launched its Perseverance rover to the Mars (red planet)- the first step towards fulfilling a long-standing dream of planetary scientists. If everything goes to plan, Perseverance will arrive in February 2021 and drive around, collecting samples of rock that, one day, other spacecraft will pick up and fly back to Earth. The rocks will become the first samples ever returned from Mars.
They will join a priceless collection of cosmic material brought back from other planetary bodies throughout the space age. From lunar rocks gathered by the Apollo astronauts to shards of a distant asteroid collected by robot spacecraft, these samples of other worlds have reshaped scientific study of the Solar System.
Ultimately, scientists are searching for signs of life on other planets with the hope that humans may have to relocate someday if Earth becomes uninhabitable and for economic reasons of space tourism and possibility of finding precious stones such as diamonds, platinum, gold and so on in space/other planets.
Unfortunately, in Nigeria, space programme is considered to be less necessary than many other governmental initiatives, particularly in the context of sustainable development.
A study published in International Journal of Business and Management Future and titled “Africa’s Space Technology Investment and Socio-Economic Returns: The Case of Nigeria”, took a look at space technology investment in Africa and application of space technology in solving socio-economic problems in the continent with a special focus on Nigeria.
Also, the paper by Emmanuel O. Okon of the Department of Economics, Kogi State University, Anyigba, Kogi State, identified some challenges faced in the Nigerian space programme and made some suggestion. “Nigeria must take advantage of innovations in space technology to utilise space and the by-products of space technology to make significant strides in optimising the resources of socio-economic development and solve national problems in consonance with the global sustainable development agenda,” the study noted.
NASRDA was established on August 1, 2001 after preparation period since in 1998 by former president Olusegun Obasanjo with a primary objective of establishing a “fundamental policy for the development of space science and technology” with an initial budget of $93 million.
In May 2006, the new extended national space programme was adopted.
Indeed, more countries have now made giant strides in their space programme. Most notably and recently are China and India. But NASRDA that promised to send an astronaut to the moon by 2030 has become almost inactive.
With a budget less that 0.1 per cent of the 2020 proposed budget, what can they do? Little wonder that NASRDA, on the World Science Day, November 10, 2019, called for increased Science and Technology (S&T) budget to boost development in the sector.
Indeed, the major problem that is plaguing NASRDA is the unavailability of sufficient funds to effectively execute its mandate.
The Centre for Satellite Technology Development (CSTD) has attested to the wealth in human capital the country possesses; however, they lack the financial support to set up the Assembly Integration and Testing Laboratory (AITL) centres, which is at the heart of the space programme.
Until now, the Nigerian government has launched five satellites into outer space. Early plans to launch a national satellite in 1976 were not executed.
The NigeriaSat-1 was the first Nigerian satellite and built by a United Kingdom-based satellite technology company, Surrey Space Technology Limited (SSTL limited) under the Nigerian government sponsorship for $30 million. The satellite was launched by Kosmos-3M rocket from Russian Plesetsk spaceport on 27 September 2003.
Nigeriasat-1 was part of the worldwide Disaster Monitoring Constellation System (DMCS).
The primary objectives of the Nigeriasat-1 were: to give early warning signals of environmental disaster; to help detect and control desertification in the northern part of Nigeria; to assist in demographic planning; to establish the relationship between vectors and the environment that breeds malaria and to give early warning signals on future outbreaks of meningitis using remote sensing technology; to provide the technology needed to bring education to all parts of the country through distant learning; and to aid in conflict resolution and border disputes by mapping out state and International borders.
NigeriaSat-2 and NigeriaSat-X, Nigeria’s third and fourth satellites were built as a high-resolution earth satellite by SSTL for DMCS also.
The NigeriaSat-2/X spacecraft was built at a cost of over £35 million. This satellite was launched into orbit by Ukrainian Dnepr rocket from a Yasny military base in Russia on 17 August 2011.
NigComSat-1, a Nigerian satellite ordered and built in China in 2004, was Nigeria’s second satellite and Africa’s first communication satellite.
It was launched on May 13, 2007, aboard a Chinese Long March 3B carrier rocket, from the Xichang Satellite Launch Centre in China.
NigComSat and NASRDA operated the spacecraft. On November 11, 2008, NigComSat-1 failed in orbit after running out of power due to an anomaly in its solar array.
On March 24, 2009 the FMST, NigComSat Limited and CGWIC signed a further contract for the in-orbit delivery of the NigComSat-1R satellite. NigComSat-1R was also a DFH-4 satellite, and was delivered in the fourth quarter of 2011 as a replacement for the failed NigComSat-1.
On December 19, 2011, a new Nigerian communications satellite was launched into orbit by China in Xichang.
Former Director General of NASRDA, Dr. Robert Ajayi Boroffice, announced at a public lecture on space technology development that Nigeria would be able to build indigenous satellites in the country without foreign assistance by 2018.
Ajayi Boroffice, who was also the past Chairman Senate Committee of S&T, disclosed also that Nigeria would take advantage of its geographic location to launch into near-equatorial orbit by indigenous developed space launcher from a national spaceport to be built near 2025-2028 with possible help from Ukraine.
Also, the country had plans for moon planetary probe for launch in 2030.
He had promised that the first Nigerian astronaut is scheduled to launch abroad a foreign spacecraft sometime between 2015 and 2020.
Negotiations with Russia were held in the 2000s for astronaut transportation. Moreover, after Nigerian space partner China launched the Shenzhou rocket in 2011, China has been planning to take on foreign astronauts.
China is seen as a more likely country of choice for flying a Nigerian astronaut to space than Russia given current relations.
African countries are not left out. Ethiopia launched its first observatory satellite into space on Friday, December 20, 2019. Egypt on November 26, 2019 launched its first government-owned communications satellite – Tiba-1 – into orbit, to support civil and military communication.
Egypt is home to the African Space Agency, established by the African Union in 2016, to help grow the continent’s nascent space industry.
Indeed, over the past decade, African investment in space science and technology has grown, driven by Earth observation development programmes in Algeria, Egypt, Nigeria, Gabon and South Africa, and investment in satellite telecommunications in countries such as Angola and Congo. According to the Business and Market Analysis of the African Space Industry study by Space in Africa, over US$3 billion has been spent on space projects in Africa since 1998. Encouraged in part by the successful South African bid to co-host the Square Kilometer Array global astronomy project, the largest radio telescope to ever built, new entrants have emerged in the African space arena.
Today, increased spending and activities are driven primarily by African agendas linked to (sustainable) development goals, and with a few exceptions, national space programmes are largely financed through national budgets and not foreign aid, as popularly believed. This has not, however, stopped critics from asking why developed countries like the United Kingdom are giving aid to some African countries with space programmes.
Meanwhile, a Chinese spacecraft is on its way to Mars after launching successfully from Hainan Island in southern China on July 23, 2020. The mission — named Tianwen-1, which means ‘questions to heaven’ — is the country’s first attempt to land on the red planet.
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