DR Congo’s planned launch of CongoSat-1 still a mirage

On the right, Mr. Shao Xu Project Manager of China Great Wall Industry Corporation. In the middle, Mr. Thoma Luhaka Losendjola Deputy Prime Minister in charge of PT-NTIC. On the left, Mr. Richard Achinda Wahilungula Director Director General RENATELSAT. Photo BENI AZILE / Vice-Primature of PTNTIC

The Democratic Republic of Congo, just like many other Africa countries, had a dream to send its first satellite into orbit by 2018. It was in 2012 that the Republic announced its dream to the world. The government of DR Congo had in November 2012 contracted with China Academy of Space Technology (CAST) to manufacture and launch a communication satellite named CongoSat-1. This Congo-SAT project, valued at 320 million US dollars, is a partnership between the DRC and a Chinese company specializing in satellite projects, China Great Wall Industry Corporation.

The CongoSat-1, according to the deal, would be based on the DFH-4 Bus configuration and launched on a CZ-3B/G2 rocket. The communication satellite specification includes a fifteen-year lifespan with two deployable solar array batteries and a geosynchronous equatorial orbit (GEO) launch target (about 35,786 km high into the orbit).

The satellite was expected to launch from the Chinese province of Sichuan. It was planned to cover central and southern Africa.

According to a Satellite Today’s blog article in 2012, DR Congo’s National Network of Satellite Telecommunications (Renatelsat) signed the deal with China’s Great Wall Industry Corporation on Saturday, 17th November 2012.

Renatelsate, founded in 1991, is DR Congo’s public agency responsible for managing the nation’s domestic telecommunication network and geostationary communication satellites. According to the deal, Renatelsate will operate the CongoSat-1.

The then Head of Renatelsat Richard Achinda Wahilungula described the deal as historic. In a press statement in 2012, he said “China has abundant experience in satellites and telecommunication. We came here because China can help us develop a satellite and telecommunication, and we never contacted anyone else for this project”.

However, the launch of the satellite seems like an unrealistic dream due to financial constraints.  Gunters Space Page indicates that the deal was put on hold in May 2016 due to lack of financing. CongoSAT-1 barely made the headlines again since 2013, few months after the announcement. From many indications, the deal may not be feasible in the near future.

DR Congo would have been the second African country, after Nigeria, to own such technology. Chinese CAST had a similar deal with Nigeria for the manufacture and launch of NigComSat-1 in 2004 which was completed in May 2007.

Renatelsat recently made the headlines for signing a deal with the Africa Union Financial Service (AUFS) to overhaul satellite connectivity in DR Congo. The public-private sector deal will finance Renatelsat’s capacity to exploit the Belarusian the satellite Belintersat-1 to improve connectivity and telecommunication infrastructure in DR Congo. The deal is structured to resuscitate the moribund Renatelsat and pull the agency to self-sustainability.

DR Congo may not have achieved its dream of landing a satellite into the orbit. However, it is worthwhile to acknowledge Jean-Patrice Keka Ohemba Okese, a scientist dubbed “the African Einstein” who had the ambition to send African rockets into space and someday put African satellites into orbit. Jean-Patrice founded a company named Développement Tous Azimuts (DTA) to launch rockets into space and explore the outer space. Did you remember the story of the rat astronaut? Anyway, the unlucky rat was airborne on Jean-Patrice’s rocket.

DR Congo’s space program is more or less synonymous with Jean-Patrice’s Troposphere space program. Troposphere was Jean-Patrice’s experimental project aimed at launching five rockets into space below 36 kilometres altitude. The launch of the Troposphere V was perhaps what put DR Congo’s space program on the global spotlight. According to a comment on Skyscraper City, “Troposphere V was a two-stage rocket with a rat astronaut on board that was launched on March 28, 2008. It was supposed to reach an altitude of 36 km, but things went tragically wrong and the rat became the first causality of the Congolese space program”.

Joseph Ibeh conducts research and writes about emerging technologies and Africa’s growing startup ecosystem. He is a Mandela Washington Fellow and holds a B.A in History and International Studies.

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