China Academy of Space Technology (CAST) is a subsidiary of the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC), responsible for the research, design, and development of spacecraft, rockets, and space-related technology. It was established in 1968, and since then, it has become a significant player in China’s space industry, boasting many highly qualified professionals, including over 12,000 engineers and technicians, and it is equipped with advanced technology and equipment for space research.
Furthermore, CAST has been actively engaged in Africa’s space industry, providing technical support and assistance to African countries and playing a key role in developing several satellite projects and space programmes in Africa. For example, CAST collaborated with the Egyptian Space Agency and the Ethiopian Space Science and Technology Institute (now the Ethiopian Space Science and Geospatial Institute) to implement the HOPE programme to promote cooperation and exchanges between China and African space agencies in space exploration and innovative science popularisation. CAST has also supported the construction of satellite systems and research facilities in Africa and cultivated aerospace talents, including engineering training and degree education for young people.
On the sidelines of the 2023 NewSpace Africa Conference, Space in Africa had a chat with Mr Li Jun, the Senior Vice President of China Academy of Space Technology, to learn about their current and future projects in Africa.
Please provide a brief overview of the core business and experience of the China Academy of Space Technology.
I am Li Jun, Senior Vice President of the China Academy of Space Technology. I am honoured to have been interviewed by Space in Africa, especially at the 2nd NewSpace Africa Conference. Since its establishment in 1968, CAST has been the main development base for China’s spacecraft and space technology, having successfully launched 419 satellites to date, with 266 still in orbit. These include telecommunication, remote sensing, navigation satellites, deep space probes, human-crewed spacecraft, and scientific research satellites. In recent years, CAST has achieved significant milestones such as constructing the Chinese Space Station, the Beidou Global Navigation Satellite System, successful lunar soil sample collection and return missions, and Mars exploration.
At CAST, we place great emphasis on international cooperation. We have signed several contracts with international partners since 2004, including 15 telecommunication satellites, 12 remote sensing satellites, seven ground systems, and seven satellite AIT facilities. In addition, we have established partnerships with several African countries, such as Algeria, Botswana, Egypt, Ethiopia, Namibia, and Nigeria. Our delegation is excited to attend the conference in Cote d’Ivoire. This is an excellent opportunity to explore and strengthen our relationship with the space industries in Africa.
What are CAST’s views on the progress of the African space sector, and could you share any information about cooperation projects undertaken in this regard?
The African space industry has made significant progress, with more and more countries establishing their space agencies and viewing space technologies as key to achieving the objectives of Africa 2063. Private companies in the space technology sector are also growing rapidly, indicating that the industry is recognised for its potential to generate social and economic benefits. The African Union Commission has released a policy and strategy for African space and established the African Space Agency to guide space technology development. To support and accelerate this development, CAST is willing to share its 55 years of experience and expertise to assist African countries in building their space capabilities.
As a state-owned company, CAST has undertaken cooperation projects through inter-governmental and commercial channels. For example, in Nigeria and Algeria, CAST-developed Nigcomsat-1R and Alcomsat-1, respectively, are still functioning properly in orbit and providing telecommunication services. In Egypt, Misrsat-2 was transported to the AIT centre in Cairo and is planned to enter the joint satellite AIT phase in the coming months. In Ethiopia, CAST’s microsatellite ETRSS-1, the country’s first satellite, has successfully provided more than three years of orbit service to address climate change. CAST is also constructing customised satellite ground receiving and application systems in Botswana and Namibia.
Launching and operating remote sensing satellite systems have become increasingly crucial to the space development plans of many African countries. I recall the launch of ETRSS-1, which has been more than three years since its launch. From CAST’s perspective, could you share how the system has performed and its role in Ethiopia’s social and economic development?
Satellite remote sensing is becoming increasingly important in the development plans of many African countries, particularly in addressing climate change. China has extensive experience in this area and is keen to cooperate with the international community. The ETRSS-1 remote sensing satellite project is a prime example of such cooperation.
CAST led and constructed the ETRSS-1 project, which includes space and ground segments, launch services, and capability training. The satellite was launched into orbit on December 20, 2019, and has been independently operated by Ethiopian engineers responsible for satellite operation, task planning, data reception, processing, distribution, and analysis. The system’s stable operation provides Ethiopia with reliable data to cope with climate change.
According to a friend from Ethiopia, the system has enabled the country to obtain a large amount of reliable analysis data, providing the Ethiopian people with satellite images of their city’s development layout and vegetation around a dormant volcano for the first time. Furthermore, the analysis of water bodies in notable rivers and lakes and changes in ground humidity during the dry and rainy seasons in agricultural and pastoral areas is of great significance for guiding agricultural and forestry activities in Ethiopia and observing the atmospheric environment of the entire East African region. In addition, Ethiopia has led African countries in using space technology to support climate change.
Moreover, the Ethiopian government is actively promoting satellite applications and doing space application popularisation work for the public. The satellite ground station in Entoto Mountain has become a popular attraction, and many young people in Ethiopia are beginning to understand, pay attention to, and learn space technology. The Ethiopian Space Kids Club has been set up by the Ethiopian Space Science and Geospatial Institute, indicating that space technology will play an increasingly important role in Ethiopia’s national economic development.
The cooperation between China and Africa in the field of space has garnered significant attention from the African space community, and it has been widely reported by Space in Africa. Can you provide an update on the current status of the cooperation between China and Africa in space and any plans for future collaboration?
As mentioned, China’s aerospace industry has been committed to sharing its development achievements and contributing solutions to the international community. CAST has established cooperative relationships with over 20 African countries, completed nine satellite systems, ground application systems, and satellite development facility projects, and trained over 100 engineers. This space cooperation has yielded fruitful results and fostered profound friendship between China and Africa.
The Egyptian AIT centre, developed by CAST, has been completed and is ready to support satellite development in Egypt, the Middle East, and Africa. The joint development of the Misrsat-2 satellite by both parties is underway at the AIT centre. With support from the Chinese team, Egyptian engineers will complete the assembly, integration, testing, and in-orbit system demonstration using the available facilities at the AIT centre. EgSA will also provide its instrument onboard the satellite, serving Egypt’s economic and social development, including agriculture, urban planning, environmental protection, and natural disaster assessment.
Please share some cooperation experience with Africa on telecommunication satellite development.
Telecommunication satellites serve as reliable communication channels in space, providing broadcasting, DTH, internet access, mobile communication, and data backhaul services to users, particularly in remote areas without fibre connectivity. CAST’s first international commercial project was a telecommunication satellite project with Nigeria. The Nigcomsat-1R, developed by CAST, was successfully launched and operated in 2011. It was based on the DFH-4 satellite platform and equipped with 4 C-band, 14 Ku-band, 8 Ka-band, and 2 L-band transponders, serving the western, middle, and southern African regions.
In 2017, the Alcomsat-1 was launched into the GEO orbit, also a DFH-4 platform telecommunication satellite equipped with 33 transponders, including Ku, Ka, and L bands. Corresponding ground stations were built, and Algerian engineers received training on operating the satellite. The satellite’s image was printed on Algeria’s currency as a significant milestone of national development. CAST’s telecommunication satellite projects with Nigeria and Algeria have played a crucial role in promoting communication and connectivity in Africa, particularly in remote areas, and have helped boost economic and social development in the region.
Many African countries have space development plans; what are your suggestions for their implementation?
When discussing space, we explore how it benefits people on Earth. African countries have published a practical and forward-thinking space development plan focusing on applications that directly benefit the public. With the abundance of resources in the space sector, such as commercial satellite communication services, positioning and navigation systems, meteorological data, and remote sensing images, we should take advantage of these resources as the gateway to the space industry. Starting with practical and useful application technologies will prepare a talented team for the next phase of space segment development. Entities should consider cost-effective proposals such as cubes or microsatellites that can be developed in a university or institutional lab with minimal equipment and space. After small satellites, more complex payloads or subsystems could be designed to support bigger satellites for practical applications. International cooperation is a reasonable way to share knowledge and expand the scale of the space industry across the continent.
You mentioned talent development just now. Does CAST get involved in this kind of cooperation?
Talent is a critical component in the development of high-tech industries like aerospace. CAST recognises this and is committed to supporting the cultivation of African aerospace talent. We believe in the Chinese proverb, “Teaching people to fish is better than giving them fish“. That’s why, besides supporting the construction of satellite systems and research facilities in Africa, we are also actively involved in engineering training and degree education for young people.
Our engineer training programmes focus on project practice. For instance, we collaborate with Ethiopian and Egyptian teams to design and develop satellites and ground systems for projects like ETRSS-1 and MisrSat-2. Workshops are also a crucial aspect of our cooperation with Africa. For example, in 2019, we organised a training course on using space technology to improve coping with climate change, which saw the participation of 23 satellite engineering and application experts from 13 African countries, including Zambia, Senegal, Nigeria, and Kenya. In 2022, 61 international students from 14 countries participated in our online training programmes, including Zambia, Egypt, Ghana, Namibia, and Rwanda.
As for youth aerospace education, our affiliated DFH Co., Ltd. is implementing the HOPE programme under the Dakar Action Plan (2022-2024) of FOCAC.
Kindly provide more context regarding implementing the HOPE programme.
The HOPE programme was jointly launched by the China National Space Administration, the Egyptian Space Agency, and the former Ethiopian Space Science and Technology Institute, among other organisations, to promote cooperation and exchange between China and African space agencies in the fields of space exploration and innovative science education. The China Academy of Space Technology was essential for technical support and planning-related activities.
In 2022, over 40 students from four schools in China, Egypt, and Ethiopia participated in six exchange activities, sharing knowledge on aerospace fundamentals and satellite development and their respective development of aerospace science education. Our experts also delivered lectures at the Aerospace Summer Camp held at Cairo University in Egypt. A microsatellite developed by high school students under the HOPE programme was also launched into orbit. In addition, an imaging solicitation activity was conducted, capturing images of African campuses and famous locations proposed by students. This greatly inspired young people to learn and understand more about space technology. We will continue to support the implementation of the HOPE programme and welcome more African space entities to participate in related activities.
What is your opinion on future space technology development and cooperation in African countries?
Undoubtedly, the future of the African space industry is promising. Advancements in space technology will positively impact various areas such as natural resource monitoring, environmental protection, communication in remote areas, disaster management, government decision-making, and youth education. China Academy of Space Technology (CAST) is currently involved in various innovative space programmes, including lunar exploration missions and better applications for the Chinese Space Station. This is an opportune moment to engage in more international cooperation in the years to come. CAST is ready to support the development of satellite systems and infrastructures, explore possibilities for collaboration in human-crewed space flight and deep space exploration, offer training and workshops, and provide suggestions for national space development roadmaps.
CAST will send a delegation to the subsequent conference to enhance communication with African counterparts, exchange innovative ideas, and ensure we continue networking and working together to improve sustainable development through space-based applications.
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