SPARC to Inspire a Generation of Young People in Kenya

Ian Mambea Solomon, the Team Lead for Space Partnerships And Research Companies (SPARC)

In Kenya, a group of young professionals have come together to inspire and empower the next generation of Kenyans to transform humanity through space technology and innovation. Space in Africa met with Ian Mambea Solomon, the Team Lead for Space Partnerships And Research Companies (SPARC) and Kelli Kedis Ogborn, President and Chief Operating Officer at Advanced Rockets Corporation (ARC), a U.S. based company.

Tell me about SPARC, Ian.

My name is Ian, and I am the team lead for SPARC. We are based in Nairobi, Kenya. As the name depicts, we seek to catalyse and coalesce civilian space research activities in Kenya. SPARC comprises eight young engineers of diverse backgrounds ranging from astrophysics, electrical engineering and, in my case, aerospace engineering. Currently, we have a four-point agenda in terms of short-term and long-term approaches.

Step 1: 

We plan to host a space camp. In August this year, we had an introductory meeting with a team from KoTDA (Konza Technopolis Development Authority); ‘Konza city’ or ‘The Silicon Savannah’, which is a crucial flagship project of the Government of Kenya as a planned world-class technology park on roughly 2000 hectares of land. It is one out of several special zones envisaged in Vision 2030, whose overall goal is to turn Kenya into an industrialised, middle-income country by 2030. Currently, Konza has attracted the Korean Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST), one of the foremost universities, as an early investor into what will end up as the establishment of the Kenya Advanced Institute of Science & Technology. The purpose of our meeting was to discuss a framework upon which to effect collaborations, such as using the expansive land area for the space camp planned soon. The space camp will last for three days and offer public access on the final day to enable the general public to understand better the uses and benefits of space research for national development and improved quality of life for our citizens. 

We had initially planned the space camp for 2019. However, we faced various implementation hurdles, particularly given that for most Kenyan companies and the average citizen, the science of space remains an arcane subject. They all imagine that things have to happen at the scale of NASA and SpaceX, where enormous objects get launched to space at an extremely high cost. We invited a South African company to participate in our space camp from the various conversations SPARC had. They have appropriate certification and experience to engage in and supervise high power activities such as making a rocket engine. 

What was the name of the South African company that will help you make the rocket engines?

The name of the South African company is Entacore Electronics Group Ltd. It is the supplier to the Cape Rocketry Group that holds the current African high power rocketry record set in 2019. They will also provide rocketry telemetry computers to provide parachute deployment, GPS tracking and assorted feedback to further high power rocketry development at SPARC.

What is peculiar about Konza city?

The whole idea of hosting the space camp in Konza city is to offer ample space, allowing social distancing for a public event and adequate space to carry out our activities. We are targeting kids from as young as 12 years old to take part in space-related activities. We envision that space is for all, and if we can nurture the young STEM prospects, we’d realise that engineering is for both girls and boys, considering that our team is a mesh of both genders. The three-day event will be engaging; parents and kids will take part in fun activities. Remember, we have astrophysicists on the team who have rounded up constellation activities and aerospace and electrical engineers who have created space-related competitions. So high schoolers, college, university students or anyone with STEM interests would have a place in the camp.

The Konza team was quite optimistic when we spoke and expressed a positive outlook about the idea of having this technologically oriented activity out at their facility. We hope that having a suitable event partner in Konza will mainstream civilian space research and secure the buy-in of critical leaders, state agencies, significant private companies and academia. This way, space research could secure recognition and support as a crucial activity in national STEM technology development.

Step 2:

The camp will be the voice of the following activity with our partner, an Argentina-based EO company, Satellogic SA. We call it “Open Space – East Africa,’’ a youth space program that enables young people interested in space technology through teams preparing the next generation of professionals for the newspace era. Satellogic has offered SPARC the opportunity to develop an East Africa challenge that would assemble a 30-person team to create an educational payload integrated into a Satellogic NuSat satellite planned for launch in 2023. The idea is to develop an educational payload, sponsor a six-person delegation from that team to fly with the payload to see its integration at Satellogic’s AIT facility based in Montevideo, Uruguay. Finally, once in space, allow young East Africans to interact with the payload for 10 minutes daily. The program will be open to undergraduate students because the modules taught in universities will be advantageous to them. We are working closely with the team in Satellogic to make this happen.

What is going to be the primary function of the payload?

Ian: Spacecraft development is a technological challenge that requires high-level teamwork, analytical prowess, project management in addition to technical input from team members. The Open Space – East Africa program will prepare future experts through student-led, practical space payload development guided by accomplished mentors from our various technical partnerships. The overall aim is to develop a talent bench of civilian space engineers with the skills to drive this region’s space sector.

Step 3:

Ian: We refer to it as “Brands of a Feather”. Our primary fundraising pillar by carrying 60 logos to space on a CubeSat after pre-selling advertising slots to various service and product segments in Kenya. It is a whole new approach to fusing marketing with science and technology so that local companies can imprint their presence on a global platform by laying claim to the title of the ‘Highest Flying Kenya Brands’ status. We keep saying the sky’s the limit, but we can enable intelligent brands to reach beyond the sky. This particular satellite is going to be a demo-sat. This idea originated back in 2009 and was featured in the February 2013 copy of the-then Tiros International Space Bulletin that the Late Jos Heyman regularly published up to 2015.

Step 4:

This step includes forging ahead. We have set an 18-month interval to launch two more cubesats to develop our capacity. Within this interval, we have a strategic roadmap. Furthermore, at this point, SPARC has become an independent company, able to walk on its own and have the capacity to support space exploration in terms of sending Cubesats to space. We would partner with many local universities to educate the students in building cansats for their school projects. This automatically makes SPARC develop HR capacity because we would be creating an environment where students will not want to move to foreign countries but have job opportunities within SPARC. We will create a Heritage of Space Operations and later offer an IPO from CubeSats to smallsats of 100-500 kg within five years, and anyone will reach SPARC.

Who are the rest of your partners?

Ian: For our partners, we have Satellogic (an Argentine company that specialises in earth-observation satellites), Advanced Rockets Corporation (ARC), Space Kidz India, Ecuadorian Space Agency (EXA), Nano Avionics – a Lithuanian company dealing with advanced rocket satellites, Open Cosmos – a satellite manufacturing company in England. We also have Astropreneurs Hub, where Dr Bidushi Bhattacharya is the CEO. She loves encouraging women in space and engineering, and SPARC’s female team continually communicates with her in our future projects. They have planned a webinar in October 2021 to talk about the Opportunities in the Space Sector, and more information will be shared as we approach the deadline, stay tuned. 

Kelli: ARC’s rocket allows for routine space travel through reliable, reusable and cost-effective access to space. It is designed as a two-stage-to-orbit, with the initial stage being air-breathing, which is somewhat unique. We have found that the initial air-breathing stage gives us efficiency gains in reusability, quick turn-around time between flights, and cost that gives ARC a competitive advantage in the industry.

We have clocked our rocket’s reusability up to 400 times and estimate the turn-around time between launches to 1-3 days.  Right now, our rocket can carry 27,000 kilograms of payload to LEO, at USD 100 per kg, which is pretty cheap. The impetus behind our design stems from our Founder and CEO, Othniel Mbamalu, who is originally from Nigeria. Growing up, he always dreamed of going to space, and he wants to ensure that space is accessible to everyone who wants to participate in its boom.

Kelli Kedis Ogborn, President and Chief Operating Officer at Advanced Rockets Corporation (ARC)

ARC’s goal has always been to branch out internationally, especially in Africa, so the partnership with SPARC was a logical fit – starting in Kenya and expanding from there. There is so much opportunity and need for engendering the space ecosystem locally and at the national level. By bringing access to space, it creates a ripple effect across communities that help support workforce development, technology supply chains that are linked to space-related activities, and educational activities to fill the jobs needed today and in the future. Right now, most people think of space only in terms of rockets, smallsats, astronauts etc. As the future space economy grows, we will need people who are good in hospitality and tourism, advancements in textiles to make fascinating space suits, and companies that can analyse data collected from space. There is a place for everyone in space, and everyone can play a part in the impending space economy. Our vehicles can serve as a rallying point for the ecosystem to grow from.

Awesome, so how’s the partnership between SPARC and ARC coming along?

Kelli: As Ian mentioned, we are strategic partners and are just beginning to lay the foundation for our collaboration. We will take part in the initial space camp as partners, and the goal is that ARC will be the launch service provider for the different payloads that SPARC will put up in space. We are currently building our rocket, which should be complete in the 2024/2025 timeframe. 

Are there going to be other activities after the satellite launches?

Ian: Definitely! After we launch the demo-sat, the two other satellites fall in the 3rd and 4th stages. So the 18 months interval is to employ the skills we learnt while working on the demo-sat. We are also looking to get SPARC a base in various regions within Kenya. So it’s going to be a movement for space engineering. 

Kelli: I would like to add that SPARC is the initial spark (pun intended) to get the conversation and excitement about space in Kenya going because there need to be conversations around space to engender the space ecosystem. And I think by starting with the space camp and moving out through other educational modules, it really will begin to become this place where entrepreneurs, startups, young people, businesses and investors can come in to access and build up the space supply chain into whatever it’s going to become. So that’s what I’m excited about, to see the next phase of who it’s going to attract to the region, what they will want to work on, and how we can support it from a company perspective.