Thursday, 25 September 2003

Nigerian Space Programme

From The Economist, via Africa Pundit :
Later this month, Nigeria's first satellite, a box of gadgets the size of a washing machine,...
In Australia, we prefer to say the similar FedSat design is "the size of a Bar Fridge"
...will be launched into space from Siberia. It was built by a British firm for the Nigerian government, and will cost $13m. Such a sum would barely buy you a sandwich on the international space station, but to Nigerians, it sounds a lot, and many are wondering if the money is being wisely spent.

The satellite is the first step in a rather ambitious space programme. The president, Olusegun Obasanjo, wants to launch a second, for television and telephone communications, and hopes eventually to see Nigerian engineers building a satellite in Nigeria. All this, says the government, will “enhance the quality of life of people” and alleviate poverty.

How, exactly? Well, the first satellite will take photos of Nigeria and beam them back home.
So far, so good.
...Nigeria has entered a timeshare deal with six other countries. Each is to provide a satellite, which will form a constellation around the earth. When its own satellite is out of sight, Nigeria can download pictures from one of the others. This is a relatively cheap way of obtaining 24-hour surveillance.

But not the cheapest. Space agency officials admit that they could buy data from existing satellite operators for less. They hope to recoup money by selling images to corporations or other African countries, but sceptics scent a loss-making prestige project, of which Nigeria has endured several in the past. The government says the satellite will help Nigeria “leap-frog” from its present state (awful roads, telephones that rarely work), into the space age. But Sam Chukwujekwu, an engineering professor, thinks the money would be better spent on education. “You can't leap-frog from a mud foundation,” he says.
Which rather misses the point. This satellite is not so much to provide a surveillance capability (though that's a useful benefit too), as to teach Nigerians how to Do Space. At first, buying a "bus" or chassis built overseas, and installing a home-grown or overseas-built payload. This involves getting the managerial interfaces right with all sorts of groups, from International Telecommunications Unions (who allocate frequencies for the data links) to the British Satellite Manufacturer, to the Russian launch service provider. Then, step-by-step, having a greater and greater local content, often selling services to other Nations' space programmes. But that first step had better not be too ambitious, or the risks are too high. What they're doing sounds about right. It's similar to what we attempted to do with FedSat, though because SIL went bust ( most of their staff went to Surrey, and are now working on the Nigerian programme), we had to do most of it ourselves.

Australia has a requirement for lots of cheap microsats to do disaster-relief and other remote-sensing over our own region. We can buy some – not all, but most – of the data from third parties. If they'll let us, and don't ban us on the grounds we helped free East Timor or Iraq. And at their price. But we'd like to get all, not just some, of the data we need.

We may have to buy some expertise from the Nigerians, as they will have solved many of the problems we'll be faced with.

They may even end up making a profit, and making our own programme cheaper. I think the concept is called "International Trade". You see we don't believe that <sarcasm>"those Darkies"</sarcasm> are less intelligent than ourselves, nor that they're unworthy of being considered our equals. I may be completely wrong, but I detect a faint whiff of arrogance and even racism in the Economist article. Maybe I'm being over-sensitive. But maybe not.

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