In Conversation with Zolana João, General Director of Angolan Space Office

Zolana João talks about the Angolan Space Office's projects, the AngoSat-2 launch, what went wrong on AngoSat-1, and the satellite mission control centre at Funda, Luanda.

Zolana João
Zolana Rui Joao; General Manager GGPEN

African countries spent about $185 million on civil space programmes in 2014. Angola was one of the top spenders, with $26 million. Others were Algeria ($45 million), Nigeria ($66 million), and South Africa ($31 million).

The $26 million the Angolan government invested in space technologies enlisted the country among African countries with space initiatives. Of the 55 African countries, only 20 have agencies or research centres coordinating their space activities. Angola also established a satellite Mission Control Centre (MCC).

The Management Office of the National Space Programme (GGPEN), an agency under the Ministry of Telecommunications Information and Social Communication Technologies, is responsible for the Angolan space programme. And Zolana Rui João has been the General Director of GGPEN (or Angolan Space Office) since 2014.

Zolana João has a bachelor of technology degree in Electrical Engineering from the Tshwane University of Technology in Pretoria, South Africa, and two Masters of Science (MSc) degree: one in Electrical Engineering from the South African Institute of Technology and the other in Electronics and Electrotechnics from École Supérieure d’Ingénieurs (ESIEE), Paris, France. He has also completed a professional engineering and management course at George Washington University.

Speaking on the professional course, Zolana said: “It’s a training that admits only 30 students worldwide. And being in an environment with people from various industries, from NASA [National Aeronautics and Space Administration], and all other big companies in the world have been a great learning experience. It’s enabled me to be able to deal with the challenges we have today”.

Forbes Portugal recently interviewed Zolana. The interview has been translated and slightly edited for style and clarity. Zolana talked about the projects GGPEN is working on, the AngoSat-2 launch, what went wrong with AngoSat-1, and the MCC at Funda, Luanda.

During the interview, Zolana also talked about the challenges of human resources training. He said: “At that time [2014], we had to recruit staff from various areas such as information technology, mechanics, electronics, and telecommunications. The route many of our engineers have taken since then has been for certification. We had to do this with our partners’ help worldwide, such as the United States, Russia, France, and Japan. Because, in fact, we had to join those who know and absorb all that knowledge to allow us to manage the project and create the necessary infrastructures”.

After seven years, Angola continues to train and build its national staff’s capacity and use the knowledge acquired in space technology to develop programmes that improve Angolans’ lives.

What steps is the Angolan Space Office taking in space engineering?
I want to point out that space programmes generally take, on average, 30 years. Most of the countries that have established themselves in the space industry have needed at least 30 years. Like everything else, a space programme has several elements, starting with human resources and various supporting infrastructures. Since 2014, the Ministry of Telecommunications, the governing body [of GGPEN], has begun a programme to send students to do doctorate programmes in space engineering.

While waiting for the Angosat-2 launch, what are the projects underway?
In addition to training staff, which is our top priority, we are now betting heavily on Earth observation.

Although AngoSat-2 will be a communications satellite, global agendas, such as the 17 Sustainable Millennium Development Goals and the African 2063 Agenda, recommend using space technologies to better manage the resources we have on earth decision-makers with factual information.

Thus, the Earth observation programme we are developing will allow us to manage our borders, control the level of river flows, and observe, in real-time, the state of specific resources. It is a project that we are working hard on. Some of our specialists who have returned from Toulouse, for example, were trained in space applications. We have also recently developed an application for urban planning in the Talatona area.

When will the Earth observation programme be implemented?
The project started about two years ago, and we have already begun to see results.

In 2018, we acquired a tool called Open JL with our partners from Thales Alenia. This tool allows us to have and analyse satellite images. We’ve been providing our staff with an intensive training programme since 2018, and we’re already developing Earth observation applications. We hope to have a complete Earth observation programme in two years.

Can we consider 2014 as a historic milestone in Angolan space efforts?
Yes. Seven years ago, we already had contracts for the construction of Angosat-1. And the government also decided to create a body [GGPEN] to manage the project. So we started training our staff, and that has remained our focus to date.

We have also been betting on massive recruitment of young people. The current staff of the GGPEN include four doctors, 12 masters and 55 graduates.

How is Funda’s Satellite Mission Control Center?
It is a spectacular space; its first characteristic is the ability to be autonomous. We built the centre to have autonomy in electrical energy and three levels of protection. When a satellite is in orbit, it must work 24 hours/seven days. So we cannot stop having electricity. Otherwise, we will no longer have communication with the satellite. Connections must also be made about the location and position so that it remains in orbit. So, one of the things about the centre is the capacity for energy autonomy.

What was the most challenging moment of this project?
We had several challenges. The first challenge was that as we plan to make the building ready in 2016, the initial location was the Camama area in Luanda. But it turned out that it was not the appropriate place. When we moved to Funda [still in Luanda province], we encountered another problem: the site had landmines. So it was challenging to work on it. Civil construction companies found it extremely difficult to move their trucks into that area. We had to clear the area in record time—three months.

The demining process for us was new; we had never worked with different defence and security agencies. We removed more than 300 explosive devices; some mines had been there for over 30 years.

The other big challenge was when we started construction. The Funda area is completely clayey. We needed to find a safe solution for the building to be built with the proper foundations. In 2015, we did not have many companies in Angola that could do in-depth studies of the soil for a building with that complexity. And that process delayed us almost six months. Eventually, we were able to find the ideal solution to test and have the guarantee of having a building that can survive for 50 years without fail.

Is there a system developed by Angolans that is operational at the satellite mission control centre?
Yes. For example, the fire detection and fire fighting system was developed by Nova Sotecma, a company headquartered in Luanda. It is a solution designed specifically for what was required. The Building Management System was also designed with input from Angolan technicians. It is not software that has just been purchased and installed; it was designed according to the building needs and what Angolan technicians also realised was better for our reality. Infrastructures have been created to operationalise Angosat-1, which, as we know, did not go as expected.

Any lesson from this experience: constructing the control centre and launching AngoSat-1?
The most complex process of Angosat-1 was not in the terrestrial segment but the space segment. The construction of a satellite is the most complicated thing that can exist in this world. Angosat-1 went from a drawing to an object of almost two tons. Building a two-ton item with all the necessary sensors and mechanical aspects is not an easy task. It was one of the most complex tasks in which Angolan specialists were involved.

But it is important to note that Angola has taken an important step. Few countries have managed to place an object in space. Our country successfully managed to put the satellite in orbit, and it worked for seven days before we discovered some problems. It was something that put Angola on the world map. All the reports today put Angola on the map of the countries that managed to place a satellite in space.

What caused the failure of Angosat-1?
Preliminarily, at the power supply level, some problems allowed the system to maintain a kind of chain failure.

What are the values ​​that you seek to instil in your team?
We convey to everyone that there must be a lot of responsibility, commitment and discipline. We even joke that this is almost militarised. We do not admit delays, errors and failures because, in this industry, they are fatal. To get a sense of the responsibility we have, look at AngoSat-1. And the impact was not only national. Many countries recognise that what Angola is doing is an act of courage.