3…2…1… Another African Satellite

Published 11 years ago
3…2…1… Another African Satellite

Despite the overcast skies, Surrey Research Park closely resembles a small-scale version of the landscaped Californian campuses it emulates; undone only by its proximity to the looped roundabouts and grey concrete blocks of Guildford, a south London town ringed by industrial parks and close-packed, low-rise houses.

It seems an unlikely home for Nigeria’s space program but it is here, at Surrey Satellite Technologies Limited (SSTL), that the West African nation’s three Earth Observation (EO) satellites were designed and built.

NigeriaSat-1, Nigeria’s first EO spacecraft, was launched in September 2003 from Russia’s Plesetsk Cosmodrome, but like its two successors, NigeriaSat-2 and NigeriaSat-X, it was built in Surrey.


The Nigerian space agency, based in Abuja, operates the three satellites principally for environmental and agricultural monitoring, but the data also has a role in security, monitoring the country’s empty spaces, through which vital infrastructure, such as pipelines, are at risk from thieves and insurgents.

Other African countries are set to follow suit. Simon Crouch, who heads SSTL’s Africa team, said the company is talking to around half of the continent’s governments with the hopes to provide them with its innovative low cost satellites.

“I think a lot of African governments have recognized that the Earth Observation satellite is a very useful tool for them to expand their mapping knowledge of their countries. It enables them to measure their forestation, or more accurately their deforestation. They can very quickly gauge when the forests are decreasing. Another application may be for crop monitoring and to optimize the use of fertilizers,” says Crouch.

A tender document for another Sub-Saharan country outlines the intended use of a desired satellite. It includes the monitoring of vegetation and soil conditions; control of desertification; the detection of illegal livestock routes and crop disease; taking headcounts of cattle; giving early warnings of drought and flood conditions; monitoring border areas and assisting in the response to natural and man-made disasters.


The usefulness of the satellites is undoubted, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa, where large geographical distances and a lack of institutional capacity hinder the monitoring of forests and rural areas. Similarly, the ability to judge the effectiveness of agricultural extension or irrigation initiatives and direct resources accordingly is of huge value to countries with scarce reserves of cash or fertilizer. The issue historically has been cost, which, due to the changes to the economics of the space industry, is rapidly decreasing.

In a 10 meter high clean room in SSTL’s Kepler Building, engineers assemble orders for the Kazakhstani government and the European Space Agency. Spun out of the nearby University of Surrey, the company has been building satellites for 25 years, and is a pioneer in lowering the price of the technology by using off-the-shelf components. Its expertise in adapting existing systems has allowed it to offer developing countries an opportunity to build their own space programs.

“When I spoke to one African country, they said ‘Is that all? That’s about the same cost as a military helicopter’. I can put forward a very powerful case that an EO satellite is more useful than a military helicopter,” says Crouch.

While Crouch won’t state how much SSTL charges for its basic satellite, the number is considerably lower than the industry standard. The cost of launching the devices has reduced significantly too. Africa has, for decades, suffered from the proliferation of military hardware from the former Soviet Union, but the end of the Cold War and the nuclear disarmament treaties have created a surplus of vehicles capable of achieving orbit: the Dnepr, once an intercontinental ballistic missile, is now a cost-effective way of getting satellites into space.


“Over the last five to ten years the cost of the launch has come down significantly for the sort of satellites we’re talking about,” says Crouch.

Typically, the launch makes up around half of the cost of a program, but the company has driven down the price by using commercially available technology.

“We will use processors on our spacecraft that are used in laptops. That sort of technology has proven itself in rugged environments. We test that technology again and then decide if it’s good enough to be used in space. In using a microprocessor that might have been used in a laptop in the last few years, and has been proven, we can cut down the development cost of that processor from millions right down to hundreds of pounds,” says Crouch.

One experimental satellite being developed uses the chip from a Google Nexus mobile phone—a sign of how mass-produced technology can be converted for use in space. These innovations have brought the cost of a satellite from hundreds of millions of dollars to tens and within reach of developing countries’ governments.


Earth Observation satellites are the simplest of the commonly deployed technology. Flying at an altitude of 700 km and relatively low in weight, they are an ideal entry point for early steps in space. SSTL aims to move into the more complex, and potentially more lucrative, navigation and communications markets, which require larger vehicles and greater orbits, at 24,000 km and 37,000 km, respectively.

The private sector has been buying and launching communications satellites targeting African markets. The massive growth of cellphone networks in Africa has meant not only a scramble to build fiber optic cables along the coastlines, but also to create satellite communications capacity to support the inevitable move to broadband internet.

David Williams—who began financing satellite technology for emerging markets in the banking sector in the 1990s—launched his second satellite as CEO of Avanti Communications in August. HYLAS-2 will cover parts of the Middle East as well as Eastern and Southern Africa, covering clients including mass market internet service providers, financial services companies amongst others. The economics of satellite communications in Africa are relatively simple, according to Williams, as the huge distances and infrastructure gaps mean that building cable into the continent’s hinterlands is unviable.

“The fiber in Kenya hits Mombasa, but how do you get the services from Mombasa to every home and business in Kenya? To put it in perspective, the UK—which is a highly densely populated island and I financed some of the early iterations of cable in the UK in the 1990s—the financing and building of cable infrastructure to the home began in the UK in the late ’80s. So some 25 years later, still less than 50 percent of UK homes have cable, and in the process, the cable companies went bankrupt twice,” says Williams.


Perhaps counter-intuitively, satellite might be the more economic option—not that it is cheap.

“It’s a bit like a mining operation. You spend a few years prospecting and getting a license to operate, and then you spend a few hundred million pounds building it, and then when it’s turned on it starts producing cash,” says Williams.

To make that money back is not too hard a prospect, he added.

“If I had about half a million broadband customers I would fill all of my capacity in Africa. So the question is, can I find half a million broadband customers in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Malawi, Mozambique, Botswana? I think the answer is a pretty simple: yes… So we’ve got capacity that’s big enough to generate well in excess of a couple of hundred million dollars of revenue per annum, and yet the capacity available is a small drop in the ocean by comparison with the demand that Africa is producing.”


So confident is Williams of the value of African markets that the company has bought another satellite, HYLAS-3, which will service West Africa.

When it comes to government-funded programs, however, it is not always easy to convince the world that the cost is worth it. George Ayittey, the Ghanaian economist, tweeted recently: “Nigeria can’t feed itself and spends some $120 billion on food imports but built the $89 million Obasanjo Space Center. What happened to it?”—a common viewpoint amongst external observers.

The assumption that any African space program must be a costly white elephant owes much to the legacy of Mobutu Sese Seko, whose wasteful initiatives in the then Zaire saw hundreds of millions, perhaps billions, of dollars thrown into a futile and ego-driven attempt to build an indigenous agency. That spectre will haunt Africa for some time yet, and it was hardly dispelled when the most recent call for a coordinated pan-African space agency came from the Sudanese president, Omar Al-Bashir, in September.

However, what Bashir was referencing was a real proposal circulating within the African Union (AU) for the creation of AfriSpace, a framework of cooperation for peaceful space programs.

“Since many decades, space technologies are not only real tools of policy development for many countries but also provide commercial opportunity and strategic advantages for a tiny minority of countries controlling them,” the AU proposal document said.

“Indeed, outside of military applications where they derive part of their continuing evolution, space technologies are supporting the development of many sectors of human activity. The area[s] of communications and information technology, broadcasting, are among the known beneficiaries of space applications.”

The proposal acknowledges the investment required for space research, and suggests that a combined African approach would overcome the cost barriers and create large enough markets to make projects commercially viable.

The response to individual projects seems likely to remain cynical, although there is some support from development experts. Calestous Juma, a Kenyan professor in development at Harvard’s Belfer Center, co-authored a paper with Peter Waswa, an aeronautical engineer, outlining the developmental benefits of a space program for Kenya. They outlined how the country could use space technology not only to meet the domestic challenges through monitoring, as Nigeria has done, but to prompt a resurgence in scientific education and capacity building and ultimately become a manufacturer of its own space technology.

“India had this debate. The cost argument is a myth. Space science, not to be confused with space exploration and travel, is a critical aspect of modern development and pursued in incremental steps. It is less expensive than not having it,” says Juma.

India and Brazil both used domestic space programs to support their own development objectives and ultimately developed high technology industries on the back of their investments.

“My view on this is to take an incremental approach which starts with creating a legal and policy environment for space science,” says Juma.

“The next step would be to partner with countries that already have the capacity. Even if you can afford it, there is a learning curve that will involve working with other countries. What I think won’t work is where countries or regions see this as prestige projects and want to focus on launching their own satellites. In fact, if the AU goes this route the best it can do is create another layer of bureaucracy over existing programs.”

Space programs have always been an expression of nations’ self-confidence, at times to the detriment of practicality, but today’s programs are not easily dismissed as white elephants, according to Crouch.

“I’m absolutely sure we’ve jumped that hurdle, because you see so many African satellites being funded, and the data from so many African satellites being used,” he says.

That data has been used internationally.

“When Hurricane Katrina swept through New Orleans, the Americans wanted an image of New Orleans 24 hours after the hurricane struck. The only satellite in the area that provided that sort of data was NigeriaSat-1. So you had an example of a high tech nation asking Nigeria if they could provide some imagery. That is an example of how useful satellite data can be. If it’s useful to the Americans, it’s useful to the Nigerians,” says Crouch.

Of the three, NigeriaSat-X is perhaps the greatest testament to the country’s potential. Originally built as a training model for Nigerian engineers being trained on SSTL’s facilities, it ended up being launched.

“It quickly became obvious that the engineers working on the project were quite capable of producing a flight model. ays. “So it jumped the hurdle of being just a training model to becoming a flight model. They did a fantastic job of adding extra systems like the propulsion and the solar panels, and it’s flying now.”