Experts reveal how Kenya can exploit space centre

Luigi Broglio space centre team in Malindi. [Johnmark Ochieng, Standard]

This week's visit to the Luigi Broglio Space Centre by Italian President Sergio Mattarella has reignited debate on the need for the government to support local studies in astronomy and astrophysics.

The Italian leader's visit was symbolic given Italy's role in the operations of the space centre.

Having a history with Sapienza University of Rome's Aerospace Research Centre and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the Luigi Broglio Space Centre has the potential of becoming a hub for space science in Africa by effectively utilising the skills of established professionals in this field as well as students.

The University of Nairobi has integrated the Bachelor of Science in Astronomy and Astrophysics course since 2014 in its portfolio, which has produced several graduates over the years.

These budding astrophysicists could be the answer to ensuring Kenya gets to the final frontier with the Luigi Broglio Space Centre as the launchpad.

Experts have now called on the government to initiate programmes that will enable more local training institutions introduce astronomy and astrophysics courses, saying the country should not be left behind in such an important field in the 21st century.

"Satellites are the major value proposition of the Luigi Broglio Space Centre. The expertise we gained from learning about satellites in a broad capacity can enable us to track satellites and interpret their data" Samuel Nyangi, a University of Nairobi astronomy and astrophysics graduate.

Established in 1962 by Italian space pioneer Luigi Broglio, the centre is a little-known facility located near Malindi that was identified by Italy as a potential spaceport.

Over time, it has become a hub for space technology development in Kenya and East Africa. The San Marco platform, located at the centre, was used to launch Italian and international satellites from 1967 to 1988. A Kenyan satellite was also launched from the platform.

"The centre is located at the equator which makes it the best place to launch a rocket carrying a payload. This would utilise the point at which the Earth spins the fastest," Tracy Kimathi, an astronomy and astrophysics student.

However, since its establishment, Kenya has had no control over the facility neither did it benefit from its use until 2020 since it was governed by a pre-colonial agreement between Italy and Britain.

The deal, which was approved by the National Assembly, allowed Kenya to appoint a deputy head of the centre as well as getting Sh25 million annually for its use. It is subject to review with a guaranteed Sh5 million increment.

However, Italy still controls all operations like rocket-launching, satellite-tracking and control of the orbiting facility.

"Broglio Space Centre will never be 100 per cent Kenyan and this will give the Italian Space Agency more power over the Kenyan Space Agency (KSA). Every launch license for future missions will have to be issued by ASI, and they will also tower over the KSA in terms of launches and market identification," said Isaac Gathu, founder of the Mars Society of Kenya.

During his visit, President Mattarella acknowledged the importance of the centre in collecting and processing satellite data.

He mentioned the shared desire for peace and collaboration between Kenya and Italy and pointed to the space centre as an example of this common desire. Similarly, he expressed interest in updating and improving the space centre.

"Through the collection of satellite information, we can understand much more about the earth we live on. This allows us to foster cooperation so we can achieve greater progress for mankind," said President Mattarella.