Starry-eyed Kenya ready for race to space
By Peter Theuri | February 23rd 2020
The race to space seems to have come closer home. Kenya has been part of it for a long time but has been jogging casually, and it seems like time is ripe to sprint.
Kenya is among 31 African countries that have pitched their ideas with the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) to take advantage of the Broadcasting Satellite Service (BSS) that is on offer.
By May 22, the countries should have submitted their final decisions on the slots they want to take up and the satellites they want to launch in space.
These satellites are being launched onto an orbit that has been under-utilised due to Africa’s few forays into space. Only 11 African countries have managed to have satellites orbiting around the earth, and the ITU intends to boost that number by 30.
The ITU, together with the African Telecommunications Union (ATU) are guiding the countries in making good decisions on what kinds of satellites and what slots in the orbit they should take.
The decision to incorporate the 31 countries in the BSS programme was made during the World RadioCommunication Conference of 2019 (WRC-2019) in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt.
African countries wish to optimise on the slots available by launching a variety of satellites, with a wide range of sensors. This is to avoid redundancy, which may be caused if satellites launched provide the same type of data.
The Government of Kenya is hoping to leverage on this opportunity to improve ICT services by maximising on the potential offered by the BSS.
“The treaty signed in Egypt after last year’s WRC19 paves the way for new, more innovative ways to connect the world, both through terrestrial and space-based communication technologies,” said Broadcasting and Telecommunications Principal Secretary Esther Koimett during a workshop in Nairobi last week.
“As Kenya, we were glad to have been part of the negotiations and the decision-making at the conference that resulted in positive outcomes for all users of the radio frequency spectrum and orbital slots. All of these regulatory decisions are important and represent a major step forwards validating the key role of satellite in today’s ICT world.”
On the country’s journey towards joining the programme, the Kenya Space Agency (KSA) was launched. It remains to be seen if the agency will be boosted to reach the levels of America’s Nasa now that it seems inevitable that Kenya will increase her activities in space-related matters.
Communications Authority of Kenya Director General Mercy Wanjau says the continent’s growth is hinged on the launch of the satellites and their active employment as Africa follows the rest of the world in sinking deeper into the digital age.
“Locally, ICTs have assumed an increasingly strategic role, with their contribution to the economy currently approximated at 13.4 per cent. Availability of radio spectrum and orbital slots, is an undisputable enabler for this growth,” she said during the workshop.
“As we move to the next generation of digital technologies, we expect both satellite and terrestrial systems to play the role in the country’s digital transformation.”
KSA was established as a State corporation in March 2017 through an executive order by President Uhuru Kenyatta as the successor to the National Space Secretariat.
“The agency shall be the successor to the National Space Secretariat existing immediately before the commencement of this order, and upon such commencement and subject to this order, all rights, duties, assets and liabilities held by government on account of that secretariat shall be automatically and fully transferred to the Agency,” read part of the gazette notice.
In September 2018, Defence Cabinet Secretary Rachael Omamo announced the inauguration of the KSA Board.
In establishing a space centre, Kenya became the third African member of the United Nation’s Office for Outer Space. Others that are registered are Algeria and South Africa.
Among other responsibilities, KSA is tasked with the co-ordination and regulation of space-related activities in the country, implementation of the Kenya space policy and advising the Government on the development of relevant legislation to facilitate the successful implementation of Kenya space programme.
In a statement released by the KDF, the agency would embark on its role to “promote, coordinate and regulate space activities in the country”.
Kenya’s interaction with space has a long history. On April 26, 1967, Italian-owned Luigi Broglio Space Centre (BSC) launched a first satellite off the Kenyan coast. By the time the last launch was carried out on March 25 1988, 24 launches had been conducted.
While most of the earth observation satellites were Italian, BSC’s collaboration with NASA meant that they also launched international satellites.
On May 11, 2018, Kenya launched her first nano-satellite into space.
The CubeSat, christened 1st Kenya University Nano Satellite Precursor Flight (1KUNS-PF), was a project between the University of Nairobi and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (Jaxa).
The university won the rights to be part of the development and launch of the maiden satellite as a beneficiary of the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs and Jaxa KiboCUBE Programme.
“The successful deployment of 1KUNS-PF heralds the next phase for Kenyan scientists and engineers to develop bigger high resolution satellites with serious scientific and technological value,” said Peter Mbithi, who was the university’s vice chancellor at the time, during the launch.
KSA is another step in that direction. The agency is expected to inform the public about space, science and technology related programmes undertaken and encourage the public to contribute to the achievement of the objectives.
In some countries, space agencies have been actively involved in several scientific milestones over time. The Canadian Space Agency announced the launch of RADARSAT Constellation Mission satellites aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
The three satellites would be used to monitor and protect the country’s environment while ensuring the citizens’ security.
America’s Nasa last month launched the final test of Crew Dragon spacecraft and Falcon 9 rocket to “demonstrate the spacecraft’s escape capabilities”; to show that astronauts can be protected by the crew system if there was a hitch during launch. This will be a groundbreaking test.
With the launch of a trendsetting nano-satellite and the establishment of the Kenya Space Agency, Kenyans will be hoping to see developments in the country’s interactions with space to make it a world leader in exploration for the benefit of citizens.
Satellites can be used for a wide range of activities including monitoring climate changes, land use and cover, crime, natural calamities and population spread, and have become the difference between the ‘big’ and ‘small’ countries.
The big countries have the opportunity to carry out extensive research along a wide range of fields while the smaller countries, whose presence in space is limited, rely on the goodwill of the satellite owners.
It is too early to tell if KSA will become a common name now that an exciting new venture is coming up, or if it will remain in the shadows, with many people unaware of its very existence.
In any case, there needs more than just the satellite launch to realise Kenyan’s potential in space.
The results of the satellite signals should reflect positively on the country’s status.
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