A Glimpse into the AfDev-Sat Initiative with Dr Ayman, Head of Imaging Department at EgSA

Dr Mahmoud Ayman, head of the imaging department at EgSA

Egypt is currently hosting representatives from Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, Uganda, Sudan and Egypt on a satellite training program between 25 July and 5 August 2021 in Cairo. The training is designed to facilitate the launch of a pan-African satellite project named the African Development Satellite Initiative (AfDev-Sat).

During the training, participants will take courses in space project management, space sub-system design, CAD tools and design software orientation, satellite testing, among others. Facilitated by EgSA engineers, participants will engage in self-design sessions with technical guides, while also working in groups.

To learn more about the AfDev-Sat Initiative, Space in Africa had a chat with Dr Mahmoud Ayman, a member of the board of directors at the Egyptian Space Agency [EgSA], and head of the imaging department at EgSA. 

Can you please give an overview of the African Development Satellite Initiative?

The African Development Satellite [AfDev-Sat] initiative was announced by the Egyptian Minister of High Education and Scientific Research in 2019, during the 2019 Tokyo International Conference on African Development [TICAD]. In addition, we also discussed this initiative in the African leadership Conference held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in 2019.

From that time, we have received several requests from different African countries interested in participating in the project. Therefore, we started working on the project’s specifics- the scope, objectives and the parties involvement.

As Egypt is hosting the African Space Agency, we are trying to build an initiative to increase collaboration between African nations to improve our capacity. We realised that the AfDev-Sat programme could help facilitate this idea. We have also met with the heads of space agencies from Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Sudan, and Uganda. We had several conversations concerning the project and how we can tailor the programme to ensure human capacity building across the participating countries. Also, we explored how the program can target the development of African countries’ capacity in space technologies.

Also, we identified another equally important objective: the climate change effect. Africa does not actively contribute to climate change; however, we are one of the most affected by climate change. In addition, we also had a meeting in Cairo in 2019, and we agreed to provide training to African engineers, and we also asked each participating country to provide three engineers. 

These engineers are currently undergoing training at the EgSA. Although we planned to commence the training in March 2020, we had to postpone it due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Therefore, after receiving clearance from the authorities to accept international flights, we started making preparation for the training.

The primary focus of this project is hands-on training. The training itself would last for two weeks. The first phase would cover the theoretical aspects, including lectures on satellites and their composition. The second part would cover the hands-on training. The engineers are being trained at the EgSA facility- with state of the art laboratories, equipment and devices- needed to develop mechanical parts, electrical boards, software for the satellite and carry out various simulations. They would also build and assemble a cubesat.

In the past, Egypt has built two cubesat in-house – NARSSCUBE-1 and NARSSCUBE-2- so we have the complete knowledge of the development of these satellites and how to make them operational, and we would be sharing these and more with the trainees.

The trainees would also be part of many technical sessions, particularly related to simulations of satellite systems [such as orbital simulation], mission analysis and mission designs for satellites. We are trying to push for the engagement of engineers from these African countries to build systems soon [hopefully a few months from now]. They would take back the knowledge gained from this programme to their home countries and would be able to build dedicated satellite subsystems that can ultimately be integrated into each other to engineer a complete satellite.

We have also received several feedbacks and requests from other countries to partake in this project. But it’s important to note that this is just the pilot project. We are trying to create a success story in a short while, and that is why we have limited the number of participants for this stage. 

But during our last meeting with the heads of African space agencies, which was also during the programme’s opening ceremony, we discussed how to scale up the projects to accommodate several other countries who would like to participate in the project.

We have a clear roadmap for this project and how to convert it into a more comprehensive programme for the entire continent. In this context, I would also like to state that the Egyptian Space Agency in collaboration with other Egyptian Authorities are planning to provide grants for African researchers and engineers to pursue masters degrees in space sciences and engineering [and other related courses] at one of our universities in Egypt. This initiative will serve as the next stage of the programme, which we could call the African Development Satellite 2, engaging more universities and participants across the continent.

But first, we want to concentrate on the first phase so that we can record success at the end of the project.

Is this project an African Space Agency [ASA] initiative, or is it a stand-alone initiative by the Egyptian government?

Africa has now established the African space policy and strategy, which are currently being adopted by the heads of state. To ensure the success of the ASA, Africans have to collaborate and foster partnerships that will help achieve the agency’s aims. However, the agency is not entirely up and running yet; we hope to change that soon. 

However, the African Development Satellite is an initial small-scale implementation that will prove the viability of this idea. The pilot project would enable us to manage the risk of a new venture and identify any deficiencies before scaling it up. This initiative is essential to demonstrate African countries’ capability and show that we can effectively collaborate to advance our space exploration dreams.

Presently, I am not sure when the African space agency will start firing on all cylinders, and I am also not confident if there would be a direct link between the African Development Satellite and the ASA. However, I hope that the success of this pilot project would show that it is an effective long term plan to adopt towards achieving the objectives of the ASA, particularly to boost Intra-African relations- the project would solely be implemented by Africans and for the entire African continent.

There is a growing concern about how Africans do not purchase their space assets from other African nations. Do you think that this project can help remedy this?

First, we practice an open market system in Africa, allowing each country/entity to buy any product from anywhere without constraints. In terms of satellite manufacturing, the parameters to look for when you want to buy a satellite component are reliability, good specification, the seller’s space heritage, and the price. However, suppose there exists an agreement or a form of encouragement by countries to exchange strategic objectives for completing each other’s needs. In that case, two or more countries can complement each other in different sectors of the space ecosystem. But this requires a strategic agreement at first. 

Africa has many resources, and if we can make the best use of these resources at our disposal, we can have increased investment in these areas and manufacture components with lesser prices- without a decrease in the product’s quality.

Another critical factor is to build trust between African nations. When designing a complex system like a satellite, it is only natural that people buy from companies with a track record of delivering reliable products. And to enjoy this in Africa, we need to emphasise the need for more collaboration between African states.

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