Challenges Facing the African Satellite Industry in the Registration of Space Objects

Egypt's TIBA-1 Communications Satellite To Be Launched On 22 November
Egypt's TIBA 1 satellite. Image source: Airbus Defense and Space

A space-faring nation is one that can launch and operate a satellite in orbit. There are 11 space-faring countries in Africa; Algeria, Angola, Egypt, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Morocco, Nigeria, Rwanda, South Africa and Sudan. These countries have launched 41 satellites in the last 21 years, and 31 of these have been launched in the last decade alone. In 2019, five African nations launched a total of eight satellites; (Egypt, South Africa, Ethiopia, Sudan & Rwanda). The primary missions for these satellites have been in communications, earth observation, technology and education.

A satellite falls under the definition of a ‘space object’, which implies liability, and most importantly for purposes of this present discourse, registration. Article 1 of the Registration Convention provides:

When a space object is launched into earth orbit, or beyond, the launching State shall register the space object by means of an entry in an appropriate registry which it shall maintain. Each launching State shall inform the Secretary-General of the United Nations of the establishment of such a registry”.

Only 4 African countries have signed the Registration Convention (Libya, Morocco, Nigeria and South Africa). Even though Article 1 of the Registration requires states to register space objects before their launch. States are also required to have a national registry of all space objects from which information is to be regularly submitted to UNOOSA as the global repository for all objects launched into outer space. Amongst those that have submitted registration documents to UNOOSA are Kenya, Algeria and South Africa. In terms of Article 4, the following information are to be provided as soon as practicable:

  1. Name of the launching State or States;
  2. An appropriate designator of the space object or its registration number;
  3. Date and territory or location of launch;
  4. Basic orbital parameters, including:
    • Nodal period;
    • Inclination;
    • Apogee;
    • Perigee;
  5. The general function of the space object

Despite these provisions, the data demonstrate that the majority of African countries have not ratified the Registration Convention, including those considered space-faring, despite international space law promptings that require a State to domesticate space treaties into domestic legislation. In addition to the fact that most African countries lack a coherent national space policy or strategy (about 7 countries have drafted national policy namely South Africa, Nigeria, Rwanda, Morocco, Kenya, Ethiopia, Algeria, and Angola), there are additional gaps within the international law registration framework which make fulfilling these obligations particularly tenuous, and in need of urgent redress namely:

  1. Shared Risks – Which state is responsible for space objects when more than one state or Private Corporation is involved? The NSS-6 and NSS-7, two satellites launched from French territory, by two aerospace companies 9Lockheed Martin and New Skies from the USA and the Netherlands respectively) shows that there is a gap within the international law about which party is responsible for registration where there are multiple parties. To recap, the Registration Convention prescribes that the launching party is responsible for registration, and this particular state of affairs lead to a quandary for the specific case study. In light of the African Resource Management Constellation (between Algeria, Nigeria, South Africa and Kenya), and any plans involving private and public cooperation in Africa, this is a lacuna which would require urgent remedying. 
  2. Registration Descriptions – The Conventions requirements are often too general and not always encompassing of the true nature of the object. Many objects, particularly military satellites, are either not registered or are registered with only very general information. This makes it difficult to assess the nature of objects like co-orbital drones. 
  3. National Registries – Article II of the Registration Convention also obliges States to maintain a national registry to record space objects launched by that State. However, most do this sporadically. The African States have not created the infrastructure necessary to support this provision. Consequently, national registries are also not reliable sources when trying to determine intentions behind military manoeuvres in orbit, as such information is often closely guarded for purposes of national security.

Despite Africa’s shortcomings, over 90% of all satellites in orbit are currently registered. However, UNOOSA lists presently over 700 unregistered satellites, and at least half of these are still in the realm. In summation, the current registration challenges centre on the lack of an enforcement institution, whether regionally or globally. With regards to registration, the role of UNOOSA is perfunctory at best, acting solely as a registry and not an oversight mechanism.

In future, there may need to be greater conversations on the creation of an administrative body with more durable powers aimed at strict enforcement of registration obligations. Africa should too, as a starting point, ratify the Registration Convention before launch, and follow such ratification with the establishment of a national registry to collate all satellite information for accountability with the broader international and regional space economy. This would be in the interests of transparency of governmental and non-governmental activities, and also serve to uphold the principle of international cooperation in space. 


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