Africa’s journey to build 1,000 remote sensing satellites

Image copyright NASA Image caption One satellite from the Ahmed Jamal Project measured the composition of the African surface

The images appearing on BBC Africa’s website are from Kenya: fine mountains and greenery are interspersed with marmalade like terrain.

This is Sierra Leone’s Mount Sugar Loaf.

It is the south-western tip of the country. And it is part of the first map produced in Africa.

The map shows not only each site of interest, but also its geographic distances: mountainous terrain, plains and coastline.

Look closely and you can see craggy inlets protruding from the terrain in the steep eastern section of the country.

Image copyright iStock Image caption Mount Sugar Loaf is part of a small but growing field of African space projects

But this example of satellite observations is extremely rare. And that is because Africa does not actually have enough satellites – let alone sufficient funding – to fully support its wide range of exploration and development.

In fact, there are only two African satellites – the Cassin Satellite of Burkina Faso in 2012 and an earth observation satellite from Ethiopia launched last year.

READ MORE: They are as small as a paper clip but weighing 14 tonnes

That is why, in 2015, Nigeria, South Africa, Ghana, Nigeria and Senegal worked together to plan a bigger, better-funded satellite project known as the Ahmed Jamal Mission to see that Africa’s space needs were being met.

The mission is run by the European Space Agency and plans to launch a mass satellite in 2023.

The 12,000km (7,840mile) make-up of the African continent means the space image must be structured in such a way that a single picture can be reconstructed by the sophisticated computer programmes that run most satellites.

The satellite itself is big and sturdy – weighing 14 tonnes and costing €300m (£260m).

That, in turn, means that it can carry six primary payloads.

The first of these will be a small satellite to study the global circulation of clouds, bringing us news of how these flow in the atmosphere – which is vital to our climate change efforts.

Image copyright African Space Agency Image caption A satellite will be deployed from a box 15 centimetres in diameter, 10 centimetres deep and roughly 6 metres in diameter

But, from the outside, it will also be able to take pictures of the earth’s surface and deploy a small satellite 100 centimetres in diameter, measuring the composition of the continent’s surface as part of its mission to unravel some of Africa’s key challenges.

Within one, small box, the payload will be outfitted with six other optical sensors and five radar systems.

Another is a land-based system to take images of land and forest areas, enabling us to monitor their ecological status as well as identifying arable land.

Another will capture data on temperature, acidity, rainfall, topography and effects of changing weather patterns.

Next is a heat sensing tool to measure the earth’s surface in real time, enabling scientists to see how temperatures were changing across various regions.

Finally, there is also a laser/satellite system that will record detail about the earth’s topography.

It will also serve to map remote coral reefs that are key marine biodiversity sources, as well as to observe the impact of humans in the seas.

There is one final package: a seabed instrument to measure the mineral composition of the earth’s seabed. This will support both good ocean science and a co-ordinated research project to investigate how the earth’s oceans should be dredged so that African countries can start to commercially exploit this resource.

Significantly, the mission will kick off a much broader initiative that will take place over a 15-year period. This will aim to deliver up to 2,000 observation and resource surveys for Africa’s citizens.

This will demonstrate what can be achieved by investing in satellites and satellite imaging systems, and to tackle some of Africa’s most challenging developmental challenges.

The high-resolution images would enable us to see if humans are part of the blackouts and drought that have plagued many African countries. They could also help find freshwater resources which could be extracted.

They would be a powerful tool for monitoring natural disasters such as the worst floods which hit Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of Congo in recent years.

And then, it would be able to map conservation efforts and support African national efforts to recover their formerly pristine wilderness spaces.

In a region of some 1.4 billion people, that is a tremendous return on our investment.

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