Space Technology, Innovation for Human Progress (II), by Professor MK Othman

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BreakThrough

Where is the place of Africa in the cutthroat competition in space technology? This was the question I posed as the last sentence in the first part of this article. The follow up questions are; can Africa overcome its developmental challenges to partake in this technological advancement? Africa is facing serious problems of basic infrastructure such as roads, electricity and above all leadership, how can we overcome these issues and focus on this high level technology such as space, satellite, spacecraft, etc? What is the motivating factor driving both public and private sectors to engage in space technology?

The cutthroat competition for economic gains among the private sectors is the driving force to innovate and bring more content of higher quality of Internet services to more people. This is only possible through useof more innovative and efficient satellite technology.  More is yet to be seen, as the 7.6 billion people in the world, only 3.58 billion have Internet access. This means that it is slightly less than half of the people who have access to Internet services. Europe is 80% connected whileonly less than 22% of African population is connected.

In Africa,many people have no access to the Internet services or may not be affordable while several others have no literacy on how to use the Internet services. Cost of the service is certainlyan obstacle; but the biggest obstacle is the fact that more than three quarters of online contents are available in just about ten languages, thus, effectively disenfranchising more than half of the world’s population. Assuming these obstacles are removed, one can imagine the hypermarket potential of Internet services globally – space technology.

The three pillars of space technology are satellite, spacecraft and space station, which have united the nations for common purposes of research, security, communication and sundry of other services. Satellite and spacecraft were previously discussed in this column. Space station is an orbital station with facilities to support human crew and spacecraft in orbit for an extended period of time. The station has supplies, energy and environmental systems that can support human habitation. Scientists and astronauts who inhabit space stations engage in activities such as scientific experiments, maintenance, spacewalks, social media updates, as well as exercise and personal care.

The space stations are important to planetary sciences asthey are used for performing an in-depth study of space including the observation of the sun and other space objects. There are also long term studies on environment and human health as scientists explore possibilities of Mars or Moon supporting human existence. NASA also uses the space station to test technology that could supplement or replace astronaut spacewalks such as ongoing testing of robonaut technology. Space stations are also used for military reconnaissance. This huge technological infrastructure in space attracted billions of US Dollars from different nations to make it a huge success. To arrive where we are today in development of space stations, it took us over a period of six decades of several concerted and tireless efforts with few losses of lives and unquantifiable properties, which culminated having two prominently successful space stations orbiting the earth.

On losses of lives, according to Wikipedia, there were fourteen astronauts and four cosmonauts’ fatalities during four separate spaceflights as at 2018. This represents 3.2 percent fatality over the last six decades. In addition, there were reported deaths of some astronauts during training such as the Apollo 1 launch pad fire that killed the entire crew of three. There were other cases of fatalities and multiple injuries during spaceflight related activities. How many space stations are currently in space?

Presently, there are only two space stations in space; namely, Tiangong 2 and the International Space Station (ISS). However, before the successful placement these two space stations, there were several attempts with successes and failures, some of thespace stations hitherto launched were the skylab, Mir, Salyut 1-7, Tiangong 1 and 2, Cosmos 557, Destiny, Quest among others. Tiangong 2 was launched in space on September 15, 2016 as a way of performing tests for the planned launch of a larger space shift known as Chinese Space Station in 2020. The space station is 10.4 meters long and 3.35 meters wide. Until June 2018, its orbital altitude was 383 kilometers. Afterward, it went down to 295 kilometers with no explanations and the space shift began experiencing a test flight delay.

The ISS was first launched in space by Russia on November 20, 1998, with the first set of humans successfully working in the station from the year 2000. Since then, there have been astronauts working continuously on the ISS. A maximum of six astronauts can survive in the space station for six months. It is currently operating and permanently inhabited. This space station was a result of the partnership between Roscosmos of Russia, NASA of the United States, the Canadian Space Agency, Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency, and the European Space Agency with the two main mission control centers being in Moscow and Houston. As of January 2018, 230 people were sent to the ISS from 18 countries. Majority of these space astronauts and scientists were from the US (145) and Russia (46). Peggy Whitson set a record of working in the space station for 665 days. ISS is a space project jointly being implemented by five participating space agencies: NASA (United States), Roscosmos (Russia), JAXA (Japan), ESA (Europe), and CSA (Canada). Intergovernmental treaties and agreements established the ownership and use of this multinational giant project. Since inception, ISS has always hosted people usually staffed by three to six astronauts and cosmonauts. However, as at September 25th 2019, when the Soyuz MS-15 spacecraft arrived with three new crewmembers,there were nine crewmembers on board the space laboratory.

Although, it was a designed setup to have crowded humans in the station but they all have different and overlapping crew assignments. Nine is certainly not the highest number of people ever stationed on the space lab. The record for the largest population on the ISS was set in 2009, when there were 13 people on board. The last time there were nine people on board was in 2015, during NASA astronaut Scott Kelly’s “Year in Space” mission.

The ISS weighs 391,000 kilograms. It flies at an average altitude of 400 kilometers above the earth and circles the globe every one hour at an average speed of 28,000 km/h. ISS is easily seen from the earth without using a telescope. It resembles planet Venus in brightness during the day and appears as a bright light moving across the sky in the night.

Back to the question on Africa and her likely involvement in space technology, there is prospect.Nigeria has to lead this mission;the giant of Africa must wake up from slumber to deliberately get involve in space technology. Over one and half decades ago, Nigeria invested in the launching of four satellites; Nigeriasat-1, Nigeriasat-2, NigComSat-1 and NigComSat-1R between September 27th 2003 and December 19th 2011. The efforts and launching ought to have been a starting point for Nigeria to be self sufficient in satellite services especially in communication sector.

Our GSM service providers are ready market for the satellite services that will galvanize economic advancement in the country. There are too many economic opportunities for the continent in the space technology otherwise we will continue to be customers of these countries. Let us invest more in science and technology; the ball is in the court of our policy makers and hope that the current minister of communications and digital economy, Dr. Pantami is hearing. Being an ICT guru, we expect to witness quick positive changes in communication industry.

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