How to Get to Space From Africa? Ask These Girls!

Copyright: Eric Miller/Panos

In 1961, the Soviet Union put the first human in space. Just eight years later, U.S. astronauts were the first to walk on the moon. Early space exploration is filled with Soviet and American achievements, but in the 21st century, countries all over the world have active space programs.

And it’s not all about exploring new worlds. In May 2017, a private company based in South Africa will launch a satellite into space. It’s necessary for the launch to run smoothly because the satellites on board the rocket are on a mission to collect data in hopes of addressing Africa’s food security issues.

Scientists weren’t the only ones to have a hand in seeing the satellites through to completion. The program is also developing adolescent minds. Fourteen young women from Cape Town high schools, trained by satellite engineers from Cape Peninsula University of Technology, created payloads for the satellite. Could you imagine building a satellite at fourteen?

South Africa’s Meta Economic Development Organization (MEDO) organized the program. They focus on educating students in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. STEM skills will be required for an estimated 80 percent of the world’s jobs by 2020. Currently, women account for less than 15 percent of the STEM workforce.

MEDO is addressing South Africa’s math and science education challenge. Less than eight percent of the country’s high school students pass their math finals with scores of at least 60 percent. The situation is worse with science, with less than six percent achieving those scores. This results in very few STEM majors at universities. MEDO hopes that this program will encourage more students to study science.

Floods, Droughts and Famine

MEDO’s dual data collection and educational expansion program is vital to Africa. In recent years, the continent has suffered through severe weather that ravaged food supplies, especially in the south. The El Niño climate pattern brought severe heat waves. Many areas received no precipitation. Any rain that fell brought floods rather than relief. Droughts followed.

The April 2016 southern African maize crop, a vital staple, was short by over 9 million tons. By the end of the year, almost 50 million people in the region will need food because of the agricultural disaster. Residents of this part of the continent face malnutrition and starvation.

The MEDO Program

MEDO’s satellite may help prevent such problems in the future. To prepare for the launch, Cape Peninsula University of Technology engineers worked with the Cape Town students to send up compact, low-cost, easily assembled CrickSAT satellites. Launched on weather balloons, these small satellites gathered thermal imaging information. Students learned how to read the data to forecast floods and drought.

To help handle climate-associated food scarcity, MEDO’s satellite program will collect information on key factors, including:

  • Growth of crops in certain areas
  • Possible locations for new vegetation
  • Floods and forest fires in remote regions

Researchers will use the data to make predictions, address current problems and prevent future dilemmas. And there will be many, many details to interpret. The satellite’s material will arrive on earth twice a day.

MEDO’s school program has expansion plans to include female students in Namibia, Malawi, Kenya and Rwanda. The program is an initial but important step for the entire continent, not just the participants. As of 2016, black Africans have not made it to space. In 2002, white South African entrepreneur Mark Shuttleworth paid $20 million for a seat on a Russian spacecraft. He traveled to the International Space Station, and conducted experiments during his eight-day stay.

Africa’s Astronomical and Space Contributions

Africa has a long and even ancient history of astronomical study. Early Egyptians tracked the motion of the moon, sun and other stars. The modern 12-month calendar is based on an Egyptian system. Mali’s indigenous Dogon people collected sophisticated information that included Saturn’s rings, the curvature of the Milky Way and movement in the Sirius star system.

So, with multiple goals, present-day African STEM specialists are making these contributions to space knowledge:

  • Egypt has sent many satellites into space on Russian rockets.
  • Nigeria, which has launched five satellites, is working on a crewed spacecraft scheduled to launch during 2030.
  • Ethiopia supports the Entoto Observatory and Space Center, an independent research facility near Addis Ababa.
  • Opened in 2012, the Ghana Space Science and Technology Centre is part of a governmental research and academic institution. Its purpose is expanding space research to improve the economic state of western Africa.
  • In July 2016, South Africa’s MeerKAT telescope started collecting the very first images of certain far-off galaxies.
  • South Africa’s next step is expanding MeerKAT into the Square Kilometer Array project, or SKA — a planned formation of 3,000 satellite dishes in the Karoo desert. These will provide more information about the features of deep space, such as quasars, black holes and dark matter.

Africa is addressing its environmental challenges in many ways, and they’re not all earth-bound. Space programs throughout the continent are intent on improving the lives of its people — something even the more industrialized regions of the world should be taking note of.