Why Small Satellite Constellations are the Next Revolution for Africa

Alén Space’s engineers working on a CubeSat mission. Source: Alén Space

The space industry is continuously expanding. It is a fact that has been taking place thanks to the ‘democratisation of space‘, a process that involves the opening of space exploration to many companies, governments and institutions that can process and commercialise space data.

Globally, it is a paradigm shift that began in 1999 between California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly) and Stanford University. The CubeSat standard emerged in these educational institutions, and it allows the manufacture of satellites at smaller scales (10x10x10 cm as a unit) compared to conventional satellites.

In the light of this revolution, the NewSpace phenomenon was born based on low costs and the miniaturisation of electronic components. This differs from the prevailing tendency of the 20th century, in which large space companies or agencies were the only ones with the financing capacity and technology to access space.

The manufacture of these small satellites is now possible for most regions and countries globally, a situation that is not unrelated to Africa. It is a continent full of opportunities, whose governments and companies are beginning to take advantage of, to ride the wave of this space business, which, according to the consultancy firm MarketsandMarkets will reach USD 7.4 billion by 2026.

Small Satellites Development in Africa

Since South Africa’s microsatellite launch, the SUNSAT, Africa has gone ahead to launch 30 more small satellites into space, accounting for approximately 66% of all satellites launched. However, due to their relative affordability, Africa has only spent about USD 188 million on small satellites, with the most yearly expense on small satellites occurring in 2011.

In addition, the majority of the small satellite projects were funded by the national governments, often as a tool for capacity development. Countries including Kenya and Algeria received funding from the Italian and the UK Space Agency, respectively. South Africa had the most diversified group funders, including participation from a private sector player and a university.

Percentage of African small satellites to large satellites. Source: Space in Africa


Distribution of small satellites per country. Source: Space in Africa
Distribution of African small satellites launched per year. Source: Space in Africa
Africa’s annual expenses on small satellites. Source: Space in Africa
What are the advantages of small satellites?

In the past, many African projects could not go ahead due to a lack of investment. However, CubeSats’ engineering and development projects, depending on their specifications, can be covered with little more than USD 500,000 dollars, a significantly less figure than those of conventional missions. Their small volume and size make them much easier and cheaper to load onto launch vehicles.

In addition, the development time of small satellites compared to medium or large satellites is also significantly reduced. Between the start and end of operations of a classical mission, the duration can be between five and 15 years, while nanosatellites have a development time of less than eight months. It should be considered that the obsolescence of technology can be a problem during the development of a conventional satellite, which is not the case for small satellites due to their short development times.

Most small satellites are launched into low circular or elliptical orbits at an altitude of 400-650 kilometres and complete about 14-16 orbits per day, providing optimum conditions for Earth observation and better protection from solar and cosmic radiation. For large-scale space missions, small satellites are grouped into constellations in which each satellite is renewed every 2- 4 years, ensuring a low risk of loss of services.

What Small Satellite Applications can Benefit Africa?

The possibilities for CubeSats are endless, but several applications can have a tangible impact and directly translate to socioeconomic and environmental development in Africa:

  • Internet of Things (IoT) and communications – The development of 5G and 6G networks is facilitated, in addition to the global connection of a multitude of devices.
  • Crop and livestock monitoring – Agricultural activities will undergo a fundamental transformation thanks to Earth observation and asset detection services, with the capacity to record any incident that may occur.
  • Weather forecasting and natural disaster prevention – With the threat of climate change and droughts in some areas of Africa, the use of constellations can be an effective tool to anticipate any potential natural disaster.
  • Ship tracking – Using AIS and the future VDES system with small satellites, any ship can be tracked in case of rescue missions or to prevent piracy.
  • Air safety – ADS-B satellite technology significantly reduces air navigation errors.
  • Defence – Monitoring of strategic enclaves and detection of external activities.
Alén Space’s Method to Managing a Small Satellite Constellation

Before developing a commercial or governmental constellation, the most sensible thing is to have a supplier or suppliers that guide you into orbit.

Alén Space specialises in managing the first to last step of constellation projects. It is a company with experience in designing, manufacturing, and operating small satellites. Since 2008, its team has developed a working method that provides reliable and high-quality solutions, based on the European Space Agency (ESA) standards and the European Cooperation for Space Standardisation (ECSS).

The method follows a series of well-defined and structured steps:

  • Project analysis and requirements – The client conceives an original idea of the project to be carried out and the supplier must carry out preliminary technical studies to check its suitability.
  • Platform selection and mission design – The platform must be in line with the design and architecture of the satellite system. Alén Space, for example, already offers its platforms designed and adapted in time and cost.
  • Acceptance and verification of subsystems from payloads, such as the software-defined radio (SDR) solution developed by Alén Space under the commercial name TOTEM, solutions that integrate on-board computers (OBC) and other data management systems, such as TRISKEL, etc.
Alén Space’s High-performance Software Defined Radio platform (developed specifically for small satellites). Source: Alén Space
  • Satellite integration – After a period of design and manufacture of the components, the integration and assembly of the different subsystems on the platform would be selected in previous phases.
  • Environmental testing – In this phase, numerous tests and trials will be carried out to check that the satellite is adapted to the environmental conditions it will encounter in orbit.
  • Launch management and other formalities – To put satellites into orbit, coordination between providers is necessary for the selection of a launcher and for other bureaucratic procedures, especially focused on contracting insurance.
  • Operations phase – Once in orbit, contact with the satellites is made through ground stations, such as those provided by Alén Space in its integral GS-Kit solution. In addition, the Spanish company also offers its Mission Control Software (MCS) to maintain centralised management of all data during the operation phase.
Fast-tracking Africa’s Digital Transformation through IoT Deployment

The deployment of new Internet of Things (IoT) connectivity networks is an incentive for Africa and its companies because communications will be improved in areas without land coverage through space infrastructure. For a continent that covers more than 30 million square kilometres, IoT technologies can be beneficial, as they make it possible to manage all types of assets (industrial, agricultural, vehicles, etc.) from anywhere through specific solutions.

In this field, Alén Space has the most experience and expertise. Based on the TOTEM SDR, the Spanish company has an IoT application for payloads with demonstrable flight heritage. The company developed the integrated software, being able to connect it to any data source for transmission via satellite.

Alén Space is currently working on several projects around the world, from commercial missions such as the constellation of Sateliot, which aims to offer an IoT network with global 5G coverage; to scientific missions, such as Alfa Crux, with the launch of a CubeSat that already allows the University of Brasilia to investigate the effects of space weather on IoT communications at equatorial latitudes.

The Spanish manufacturer also manages other open projects in countries such as Spain, Norway, Indonesia, the UK, Australia, Italy, Lithuania, Ecuador, Thailand and Denmark. In conclusion, the small satellite market is booming. Now is the right time to develop different projects and business ideas in space. The African continent and its entire industry have a lot to say in this sector.


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