In Depth

Africa joins space race: Should Ghana be over the moon?

GhanaSat-1 puts the tiny west African nation in competition with Nasa and the Chinese

Ghana's space programme took one small step last week and one giant leap into the sub-Saharan space race.

The successful orbit of GhanaSat-1, its first space satellite, means the tiny West African nation is now one of dozens of nations competing to occupy the low and high Earth orbits and to further the scientific discoveries of humanity.

GhanaSat-1 launched from Kennedy Space Center in June and was released from the International Space Station nearly a month later. It began orbiting last week.

For a country described as "crippled by poverty, hunger, corruption, illiteracy and poor governance", what is the incentive to prioritise space programmes and what is achievable?

The new space race

Ghana is not the first developing nation to send a satellite into space. Nigeria, Turkmenistan and Mauritius, all listed as "emerging and developing economies" by the IMF, face problematic social issues yet are taking to the skies.

Some 70 countries claim to have a space programme, although with varying degrees of success. Nigeria's first satellite was launched in 2003 and more have followed, each a milestone in the "nation's effort to solve national problems through space technology", said former president Goodluck Jonathan.

However, as The Economist and others ask: how can poor countries afford space programmes?

The reality is that it is not entirely necessary to prioritise a space agency over other social programmes due to the relatively low cost of satellites.

GhanaSat-1, for example, was made possible by collaborating with the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency at a cost of $500,000 (£384,000). The satellite is equipped with low and high-resolution cameras capable of monitoring the coastline for mapping and data collection.

At the other end of the spectrum are the space "vanity projects", The Economist says, such as the original space race between the US and the Soviet Union during the Cold War and, arguably, the more recent battle the US and China.

With its $1.3bn (£1bn) annual budget, the China National Space Administration is miles ahead of Ghana but trails Nasa's annual spend of $19bn (£14.5bn). Nevertheless, Beijing is competing in the race to Mars and has "positioned itself as the biggest threat to American and Russian dominance in space", says Vice.

Ironically, larger sums of money and more grandiose aims often come with a misguided sense of importance.

In 2009, author Gerard DeGroot wrote in the Daily Telegraph that Nasa's exploits were "a pointless waste of money" and that George W Bush's plan to send a manned mission to Mars - priced at $400bn (£307bn) - was inspired by his desire to stay ahead of the Chinese.

Thinking small

Ghana sits at a lowly 144th on the IMF's GDP-per-capita list, with 23 per cent of the country living in poverty and high infant mortality rates.

Yet far from the grandiosity of US and Chinese space endeavours, GhanaSat-1, weighing a mere 2.4lbs, encapsulates great hopes for the country's future. Space exploration can attract wealthy investors and reap social benefits, including employment.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, that has motivated countries large and small to embark on a space programme, not the least of which is India.

India's 2013 Mars Orbiter Mission cost $73m, while Nasa's Maven, which served a similar function, cost $671m the same year, Ars Technica reports. 

"With the world's eyes on the nation's frugal space technology, India is attracting investors beyond France and Japan," and other developing nations will likely be next,” adds the site.

Meanwhile, "Bangalore did not become a tech hub simply because of its pleasant weather and lovely gardens", Quartz Media reports. "It is the home of ISRO and other high-tech industries that created an environment for and pool of engineers."

The benefits

In the last 44 years, the Indian Space Research Organisation has moved from primitive satellites to groundbreaking technology and "achieved remarkable feats on a shoe-string budget", reports Ars Technica. New Delhi now possesses an arsenal of satellites capable of communication, data-gathering and military operations.

The technological advancements have also helped down on the ground. For example, a massive cyclone on India's east coast in 1999 killed more than 10,000 people, but when the similar-sized Cyclone Phailin hit the same region in 2013, only 21 people died.

The difference is largely attributed to the early-warning weather systems provided by India's vast array of weather satellites, says the UN.

Smaller countries look to India as an example of what might be possible.

In Ghana, Professor Richard Damoah, an assistant research scientist at Nasa, believes the GhanaSat-1 deployment could direct government resources toward another satellite project coordinated by All Nations University and the country’s Science Space and Technology Centre, Techcrunch reports.

“After this launch, we now have the support of the president and cabinet support,” he said. “We are looking to develop a GhanaSat-2, with high resolution cameras, that could monitor things such as illegal mining, water use, and deforestation.”

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