The first satellites launched by Uganda and Zimbabwe aim to improve life on the ground

When Uganda’s first-ever satellite was launched last week, November 7th, Bonny Omara, the lead engineer on the satellite development team, was filled with emotion.

“I watched it on TV with my honorable Minister for Science, Technology and Innovation,” he says. “It was really amazing and we hugged! To see my baby take off from the ground towards the International Space Station – it’s really a great feeling of my life.”

The satellite, named PearlAfricaSat-1, developed by Omara and his team, was launched aboard a Northrop Grumman Cygnus resupply spacecraft that took off from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. The rocket also carried ZimSat-1, Zimbabwe’s first satellite.

Both satellites were developed as part of the Joint Global Multi-Nation Birds Project 5, BIRDS-5, in collaboration with the Kyushu Institute of Technology in Japan. When asked about working with engineers from Zimbabwe and Japan, Omara says, “I feel really great to be working with our neighbors in Africa… to have a team of engineers and great men joining hands to work together to create a.” to achieve a common goal. ”

Uganda and Zimbabwe join an ever-growing number of African countries expanding their space technology capabilities. To date, 52 satellites have been launched from 14 African countries, including the two launched last week.

The satellites, which have now reached the International Space Station, are scheduled to be deployed in the coming weeks, depending on environmental conditions.

It’s a historic moment for the two countries, who now hope the data collected by the satellites will help improve life on Earth.

Big things come in small packages

Many of the modern devices we use every day work thanks to satellite technology – something that is often taken for granted.

Uganda's satellite is small but packs a punch.  It will be able to transmit data that will help Ugandans make the best use of their natural resources.

/ Bonnie Omara

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Bonnie Omara

Uganda’s satellite is small but packs a punch. It will be able to transmit data that will help Ugandans make the best use of their natural resources.

“Space technologies are essentially the backbone of the modern economy,” says Kwaku Sumah, founder of SpaceHubs Africa, a service company helping to stimulate Africa’s space ecosystem. “Sometimes you don’t even know you’re using them. But if you use Google Maps, for example…or even things like Zoom or broadband communications, it’s all powered by satellite services.”

Sumah and SpaceHubs Africa were not involved in the development of the recently launched satellites.

However, the satellites of Uganda and Zimbabwe will not offer wireless services to anyone. Instead, they were developed for earth observation purposes.

“[The satellites] have a multispectral camera that allows the satellite to essentially take pictures of Earth,” says Sumah. Multispectral cameras can capture images that capture information from wavelengths of light that are invisible to the human eye.

This provides data that can help, among other things, determine the health of soils for agriculture. According to Omara, the multispectral camera will be used to “perform analysis of water quality, land use and soil fertility.” This information is then made available to citizens so that they can make the best use of the natural resources in their countries.

But there are still opportunities to do even more with the satellites. Sumah says one of the main purposes of a Ghana satellite launched in 2019 was to “monitor illegal mining in northern Ghana”.

And all of these capabilities are made possible by a satellite that measures just 10cm in each direction. They are called CubeSats – and their small size and low development costs make them perfect first satellites for nations developing their space technology sectors. But don’t let their size fool you. Although small – just a bit larger than a Rubik’s Cube – CubeSats can still pack a big punch.

However, CubeSats have a downside. Their service life is only about 24 to 30 months. So unless Uganda and Zimbabwe commit to building and launching more of these satellites, the benefits will be short-lived.

A small step for Africa, but big leaps are still needed

The satellites launched by Uganda and Zimbabwe are not the first satellites to be launched by African nations, and they will not be the last. According to Sumah, “Ethiopia intends to launch a new satellite, as do Nigeria and Ghana,” all hopefully within the next year.

Despite plans for future launches by African nations, Sumah is a little hesitant to suggest that greater things are undoubtedly on the way. “I hope that these are not just one-off events used just for PR, but that there is an ongoing momentum that helps move Africa forward to really maximize the use of these new technologies,” he says.

Ugandan engineers Edgar Mujuni (left), Bonny Omara (centre) and Derrick Tebusweke helped launch the country's first satellite.

/ Bonnie Omara

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Bonnie Omara

Ugandan engineers Edgar Mujuni (left), Bonny Omara (centre) and Derrick Tebusweke helped launch the country’s first satellite.

At least in relation to Uganda, Omara believes one thing will help ensure that this new push into space will be sustainable. “Some countries launched their first satellite, or even many, by paying money to other institutions, which then give them the satellite,” he says. “But Uganda is unique in the sense that we participated, we now have three engineers who are very knowledgeable about the process of developing satellites.”

While the human capital exists to enable sustainable satellite development, Omara believes more political and social investment is needed before space technologies can fully mature in Africa.

“In terms of science and technology, we’re still lagging behind on the African continent,” he says. “The reason is very simple – because we don’t believe in ourselves. I always tell everyone we can do it, we have all the resources we need. The only thing we do is believe in ourselves.”

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