Zimbabwe partners Japan in building country’s first satellite.

Clarency Masunda

Zimbabwe is set to launch its first satellite  ZIMSAT-1 this month in February.

ZIMSAT-1 is an educational and amateur radio mission cube satellite.

The cube satellite will host a multispectral camera and image classification tool, as well as a device to transmit and receive signals from amateur radio operators.

ZIMSAT-1 promises to expand Zimbabwe’s remote sensing capabilities and allow it to better monitor natural resources, scientists said these tools will allow stakeholders to more quickly and fully assess data for issues like ground cover and drought.

ZIMSAT-1 is the latest mission from the Joint Global Multi-Nation Birds Satellite (BIRDS) project.

The BIRDS initiative has Zimbabwean engineers working with the Kyushu Institute of Technology in Japan, and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) will assisting in launch it.

In addition to the satellite itself, BIRDS supports a free app (BIRDS-NEST) with which satellite images from ZIMSAT-1 can be downloaded onto smartphones.

ZIMSAT-1 will be a guinea pig to Zimbabwe’s fast growing space program, which was established on 26 July 2018 as the Zimbabwe National Geospatial and Space Agency (ZINGSA).

ZINGSA is housed at the University of Zimbabwe in Harare and manned by local enterprising scientists from innovation hubs under the Education 5.0 plan.

This concept places higher institutions of learning as champions of technology innovation, modernisation and industrialisation.

ZINGSA launch in the picture: President Emmerson Mnangagwa (centre),flanked by vice president Chiwenga (second from left), Minister Of Defence Muchinguri-kashiri (first from left)

At the launch of the Zimbabwe Science Park and commissioning of Zimbabwe National Geospatial Space Agency in September last year, President E.D Mnangagwa heralded the use of new technologies and said they will ease the monitoring and use of national resources.

“The use of space technologies presents vast opportunities such as managing our abundant natural resources, environmental hazards and disasters, weather forecasting, climate change mitigation and adaptation, agriculture and food security, as well as disease outbreaks,” said President Emmerson Mnangagwa

“The Zimbabwe National Geospatial and Space Agency will deploy earth observation satellites, global navigation satellite systems, unmanned aerial vehicles, geospatial and space technologies” said President E. Mnangagwa.

Growing Fleet of Satellites from Africa

Twenty-three years after South Africa launched the first African satellite SunSat-1, in 1999. The last four years have been very successful for the African space scene. A total of 20 satellites have been launched by African states since 2016 totaling 41 satellites.

Egypt leads the way with nine launched satellites, followed by South Africa with eight, Algeria with seven, Nigeria with six, and Morocco with three. Ghana, Sudan, Ethiopia, Angola, Kenya, Rwanda and Mauritius complete the list.

Many African countries have yet to launch a satellite however, largely due to humanitarian priorities. “The initial cost for space exploration is very high,” explained Electdom Matandirotya, chairperson of the Department of Space Sciences and Applied Physics at the University of Zimbabwe.

Dr Matandirotya also works with ZINGSA.

However, she added that, “Africa has also realized that space exploration has many benefits in the long run, and investing in such an initiative is worth it.”

Why Africa is sending more satellites into space ?

Africa’s space industry has been slow to take off, but it’s predicted to skyrocket in the next few years.

The payoff could be substantial. A 2021 report by the World Economic Forum estimates that data collected from space could unlock $2 billion a year in benefits for Africa.

Launching constellationsSpace in Africa estimates over 283 companies now operate in the continent’s space and satellite industry, which it says generated more than $7.3 billion in revenue in 2019 and predicts will generate over $10 billion by 2024.

Another South African company Dragonfly Aerospace, provides imaging systems for satellites and is now working on launching its own constellation.

“The new space industry has a lot of opportunity because there’s a lot of growth,” says Bryan Dean, Dragonfly Aerospace’s CEO. “You are now able to launch more satellites for the same amount of money than you were in the past, and a system of satellites in orbit is far more powerful than a single satellite because they work together and combine the data.”

Overcoming roadblocksMinoo Rathnasabapathy, a space research engineer at MIT, says the continent’s space industry still has challenges to overcome, most notably a lack of resources.

“When you consider the US or Europe, it’s really apples and oranges.” she says. “In the US we see a lot of private industry and a lot of private funding and we’re seeing NASA and ESA [the European Space Agency] be able to tap into that funding. Whereas in Africa, we’re just not there yet and that’s completely understandable given other priorities of the countries.”

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