Space exploration used to be a luxurious show of technological might between the United States of America and the defunct Soviet Union, until developed nations realized the potentials of space technology in addressing real-life challenges and improving the conditions of living on Earth. Developing nations followed suit, committing their limited resources at a smaller but significant scale to exploit outer space programmes for socio-economic gains as well as national pride among the committee of nations.
Nigeria is one of the first countries in Africa to join the ranks of spacefaring nations, and currently maintains one of the biggest space programmes on the continent. Nigeria, during a joint session of the UN Economic Commission for Africa and the Organisation of African Unity in 1976, first expressed its ambition to join the elite league of nations with outer space programmes. Preparatory policies followed between 1976 to 1980, leading to the establishment of a 10-million naira National Remote Sensing Centre which started operations in 1996. A blueprint of what later became known as the National Space Agency was contained in the National Space Science and Technology Policy drafted by a nine-man committee in 1998.
On 5th May 1999, the government established the National Space Research and Development Agency (NASRDA), under the Federal Ministry of Science and Technology, and adopted the National Space Policy in 2001. NASRDA led the implementation of the national space programme with an initial operational budget of USD 93 million and unwavering government support.
In 2003, NASRDA’s collaboration with UK-based Surrey Satellite Technology led to the launch of NigeriaSat-1, an earth observation satellite with a 32m resolution camera and an optical sensor. The following year, the Nigerian government contracted the China Great Wall Industry Corporation for the manufacture and in-orbit delivery of a communications satellite known as NigComSat-1. NigComSat-1 was launched on 13th May 2007, but failed in orbit in November the following year as a result of non-deployment of the satellite’s solar panels. Nigeria and China agreed a replacement deal, resulting to the launch of a second communications satellite NigComSat-1R which was launched in 2011 as a replacement for the failed NigComSat-1.
On 17th August 2011, Nigeria launched two more earth observation satellites, NigeriaSat-2 and NigeriaSat-X, for disaster and environmental monitoring missions. UK-based Surrey Space Technology Limited built NigeriaSat-2 and provided technical training for Nigerian engineers to build NigeriaSat-X, (X meaning experiment), as part of the contract. Currently, Nigeria has three functional satellites that are orbiting the Earth, delivering important data and driving social economic development across various sectors of Nigeria’s economy.
Contributions of NASRDA to the economic development of Nigeria
The fundamental goal of Nigeria’s space programme is geared towards sustainable development and security including disaster and environmental monitoring, scientific research and development, human capacity development and security intelligence. NASRDA boasts of making far-reaching and productive use of the satellites, from precision farming to tele-medicine, tele-education, national mapping, and surveillance in the troubled North-Eastern region of Nigeria.
The space agency has donated more than 4000 satellite images estimated to be worth 3 billion Naira (about USD 8.3 million) to Nigerian universities and research institutions using NigeriaSat-1 alone. In 2007, the government mandated the space agency to carry out a detailed resource inventory of Nigeria for national planning. NASRDA successfully carried out the project, helping the nation save over 4 billion Naira (USD 11 million). The NigeriaSat-1 satellite produced several high-resolution images of Nigeria . The satellite images were used to develop Nigeria’s settlement map at a scale of 1:100,000 as well as the first Nigerian Satellite Atlas, a project that is valued at 3 billion Naira (about USD 8.3 million). In all, NigeriaSat-1 directly contributed over 10.5 billion Naira (about USD 29 million) to Nigeria’s economy within its first 9 years in orbit.
With the launch of NigeriaSat-2 & X in August 2011, NASRDA commenced the second phase of resource inventory mapping for the government. The agency has already completed detailed resource inventory mapping in South-West and North-Central Nigeria (excluding Benue State) at a scale of 1:50,000. The project was estimated to be worth 5 billion Naira (about USD 13.8 million) upon completion.
In 2013, Nigeria’s Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) called on NASRDA to play a frontline role in the Constituency Delineation project for mapping of Nigeria’s internal boundaries for electoral purposes. INEC relied on NASRDA to produce hard and soft copies of high-resolution images of the entire country.
The other part of Nigeria’s earth observation satellite programme involves supporting universities and research institutions with free data for academic research. NASRDA has donated 4.5 billion Naira (USD 12.4 million) worth of images from NigeriaSat-X to 35 Nigerian universities.
Support for armed forces and national security
Commoners in the streets of Lagos are hardly familiar with the operations of NASRDA. However, many Nigerians know about the application of satellite technologies in military surveillance, navigation and tracking services, following scenes they watch in satellite television channels and blockbuster movies . Similar scenes play out in the “real-life” operations of NASRDA, involving synergy between the agency and the Nigerian military in internal security and external peace-keeping operations.
For instance, NASRDA produced a 10-metre digital elevation simulation map and vegetation density map of Sambisa Forest, using NigeriaSat-X to assist the Nigerian military in combating the dreaded Boko Haram sect who at some point had overrun several towns in North Eastern Nigeria. NASRDA is the principal space intelligence team collaborating with both the Nigerian military and foreign military aid agencies working to eliminate Boko Haram insurgents in West Africa.
In terms of external military operations, NASRDA produced data and satellite images of South-West Mali during the civil war between Southern and Northern Mali in 2012. The topographic map provided the West African peace-keeping soldiers with geographical knowledge of the crisis zone. Ultimately, the satellite images contributed to successful military intervention in Mali.
NASRDA also conducted image mapping and terrain analysis of the Dargol Area of Niger Republic, the scene of the 2013 Nigerian Airforce jet crash. NASRDA’s role in the fight against insurgency is one of the arguments pro-space Nigerians make to justify the millions of dollars which the government allocates to space projects yearly.
Capacity building and the knowledge economy
NASRDA boasts of exceeding expectations in the area of human capacity development and enabling space science research across universities in Nigeria. In June 2015, NASRDA established the Institute of Space Sciences & Engineering (ISSE) in Abuja to address the skill gap in the space sector in Nigeria.
The Institute comprises of the Department of Space Sciences and Department of Space Engineering Systems with programmes drawn from the specialised studies in Space Sciences, Engineering, Mathematics, Computerisation, and Technology Innovations leading to the award of M.Sc and PhD degrees. As of 2018, NASRDA has supported 600 Nigerians (200 PhD and 400 Masters Degree holders) to acquire postgraduate education in the field of space sciences and aerospace engineering, with a plan to train up to 1,000 individuals by 2025.
Most of the engineers are trained through capacity development programmes associated with satellite projects that are outsourced to foreign contractors. UK-based Surrey Satellite Technology (SSTL) trained 15 Nigerian scientists and engineers as part of the capacity development deal associated with NigeriaSat-1. The company further trained another 27 Nigerian engineers and scientists, and awarded 10 M.Scs through the University of Surrey during the development of NigeriaSat-2. Nigerian engineers trained at SSTL built NigeriaSat-X using facilities available at SSTL. 55 Nigerian engineers were trained in China as part of the human capacity programme for NigComSat-1.
In 2017, NASRDA supported the Federal University of Technology Akure (FUTA) to develop a nanosatellite named NigeriaEduSat-1. The nanosatellite was developed by students of FUTA in conjunction with the Japanese Kyushu Institute of Technology (KyuTech), through the BIRDS-1 Small Satellite Programme. The BIRDS Project is an academic technology-transfer programme introduced by the Japanese government to support non space-faring countries to build their own satellites. NigeriaEduSat-1 joined a constellation of four other identical CubeSats from Bangladesh, Ghana, Japan, and Mongolia that were deployed from the Japanese Kibo Module of the International Space Station on 6 March 2017.
While many think investment in space technology is a waste of money, NASRDA is bringing huge return on investment by contributing immensely to economic growth and development of the nation.
Joseph Ibeh is a Mandela Washington Fellow and Senior Editor at Space in Africa. He writes about Africa’s NewSpace companies and emerging national space programs.