Meet university students behind Kenya’s budding space race

Jeff Ayako, a student at Kenyatta University shows off a computer model of the KU CUBE that will be launched into space this August [Peter Muiruri, Standard]

In the last two weeks, millions watched as billionaire businessmen Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos blasted their way into space.

Among those watching the developments were eight Kenyatta University students who, if all goes to plan, intend to launch a satellite into space this August.

The university was among institutions of higher learning that were offered grants by the Kenya Space Agency to design satellites that can eventually be launched into space. This followed the successful submission of their proposal “Operational Space Weather and Nano-satellite Development”.

The Sh1 million grant will be utilized to develop a nano-satellite prototype for imagery, telemetry and drones for agricultural use and disaster management in the country.

According to information from the university, the prototype christened ‘KU CUBE’ nano-satellite will help the country predict and mitigate agricultural disasters including the locust menace that has debilitated parts of the country in the last two years.

“Data received through the satellite will help in predicting and informing the public about locust migration, giving farmers a heads up about the presence of locusts before they even arrive. We are giving our farmers the capacity to engage with space technology,” says 24-year-old Allan Koech, software developer.

From their small room at the university’s Chandaria Incubation and Innovation Centre, the students ooze confidence as they display the various components being assembled to have the country’s presence in space felt.

On the walls are astrodynamics and orbit dynamic diagrams and formulas that are hard for the average learner to decipher but which the young men and women dissect with ease.

“This cube will go into space by August carrying a Kenyan made branding for the rest of the world to know that this country can come up with such space technology,” says 22-year-old Jeff Ayako who is in charge of the project’s design and fabrication. “Aliens, if they exist will know Kenya has innovators.”

Students behind Kenya's space race [Courtesy]

The cube, whose development commenced in September 2020, will be launched 200 kilometres above ground though a prototype will be tried at 37 kilometres. 

All parameters working well, the Kenyan innovation will travel at 28,000 km per hour, or 16 times the speed of a bullet, taking 98.77 minutes to complete an orbit. And with Kenya being on the equator, the students say the country is in a good location to launch such satellites. 

However, due to prohibitive costs associated with taking weighty objects into space, the 10cm by 10cm cube will only weigh about a kilo. It costs an average of a million shillings to lift a kilo in space. 

The payload will consist of a low-resolution camera responsible for taking images to be studied for geographical and geomatic information systems (GIS) while a bent pipe will hold the communications system needed to receive and transmit data to and from the ground station.

“Everything must be right the first time as there is no one to fix the machine once it is launched. We needed something that could withstand the extreme space conditions. Interestingly, our idea came from a pumpkin that looks very fragile but is solid enough to carry its contents. If a single item fails, it will mess up the entire project,” says Tadzi Stower who handles the project’s orbital mechanics.

But the students are not just concerned with taking the country to space. They also want to prove that the African continent has brains capable of innovations only associated with the developed world.

Fidel Makatia, the group leader says the minds in the Western world are no different from those here in Kenya and “have the capacity and infrastructure to be the first country in Africa to go into space.”

Yet still, the innovation is also about cutting costs that countries in Africa pay to access technology developed by the Western world.

“Some people may wonder why we are going into space engineering. But look at the amount Africa spends to access stuff from satellites such as Uber, Google Maps and others technologies. A whooping $7.2 bn (Sh760 billion), money that should be coming to Africa. That's where our innovation comes in. The fourth industrial revolution must happen in Africa," says Vigil Suerin, an aerospace engineering student at the university.

Under the tutelage of Dr. Victor Mwongera who heads the mechanical engineering department at the university, the sky does not seem to be the limit for the ambitious students.