Africa Launches into Space in a Small Way

Firstly, congratulations definitely are in order. A small Ghanaian university has joined the Space Race by participating in the ongoing CubeSat launch trend.

A CubeSat costs nearly $100,000 to put in orbit (rocket launch costs are significant), and getting JAXA (the Japanese Space Agency) and others to back your university project requires showing some seriousness.

In this particular June deployment from Florida, universities from only five countries leveraged JAXA’s backing to deploy CubeSats, of which only two were from Africa, Ghana’s All Nations University at Koforidua, and Nigeria’s Federal University of Technology at Akure.

Kenya’s earlier project (1Kuns) was also backed by JAXA but with the apparent intermediation of the Italian Space Agency. It did precede the efforts of the Nigerians and the Ghanaians within the KiboCube framework (the JAXA-UN effort pushing universities around the world to deploy CubeSats) but it seems to have garnered precious little coverage, compared with the latter.

Ethiopia’s CubeSat project, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to have won KiboCube’s support. At any rate it was in the ‘mini’ rather than the pico-nano range that CubeSats fall within.

It is intriguing to see that the bigger Engineering universities in Sub-Saharan Africa haven’t jumped on the CubeSat bandwagon at all. Which is all the more reason ANU needs to be seriously commended for this effort.

What does CubeSat signify though, and why is the UN pushing it?

Maybe I should first explain what it is.

Think of it as the Raspberry Pi of space technology. The first ‘readymade kit’ for building a satellite the size of a box of Papaye’s rice and chicken.

The specifications were developed by CalPoly and Stanford in California, USA, around 1999. Since then it has become the platform of choice for universities in getting space science students practically immersed in the engineering of satellite technology.

As a U-class sateLlite, CubeSat platforms are awesomely miniaturised.

They represent the culmination of several generations of space technology advances in terms of reduced cost, simplicity and shrunk size.

In short they can do for the space industry what wireless has done for global telecommunications: democratise, decentralise and distribute it.

Even if only a few countries can launch rockets to put satellites in space, the fact that the satellites post-launch can be radically differentiated creates serious room for innovation.

So where does that leave GhanaSat-1, the ANU CubeSat (which was originally scheduled for 2020 but appears to have been fast-tracked)?

Firstly, the race is still open to transform CubeSats from educational kits into real commercial applications. Which is hard to do when they are so tiny, degrade so quickly and have too few specialised payloads in today’s commercial arena to transport. But that is precisely where the opportunities for innovation lie!

As for the mechanical contraptions themselves, Planet Labs (the startup in San Francisco which dominates the CubeSat commercial world), CalPoly, Stanford, and assorted Californians have ringfenced them with patents and sucked much of the joy out.

The real contest is for the gadgetry that can be put on these spacefaring devices; in modifications of their propulsion systems; and in fuel unit redesign. Can we come up with breakthroughs in any of these dimensions?

Think of it this way: cell phones didn’t become as revolutionary as they are today just because they became smaller. Their radical contributions stem from the digital applications ecosystems they have enabled.

So whichever country develops the most awesome mini-gadgets that can sit on top of something the size of a takeaway box, survive the harsh conditions of Space, and offer clear benefits from hundreds of kilometers above the Earth’s surface wins.

Here is where, despite having been fulsome in praise for ANU, I still have to do what I always do: find a bit of fault with their approach. When I listened to the project leads, they appeared to be emphasising aerial imaging and measurement of microelectronic degradation due to ablation.

I don’t see what competitive advantage ANU’s spin-off companies (if they manage to crack the commercialisation) or Ghana can gain from those two focuses. Near as I can tell, atmospheric drones have conquered the aerial photography space.

And in general communications I simply don’t see how pico/nano satellites can compete with the beasts of Eutelsat.

ANU will clearly need to think much harder, and their collaborators in government, in addition to upping support, need to dig more creatively into potential nano-applications in which tiny satellites are considerably superior to bigger satellites and drones in delivering.

One approach that is beginning to gain attention is the use of such satellites in ‘swarm’ and ‘constellation’ formations to achieve data-gathering objectives in a way that a single platform, whatever its size and sophistication, cannot achieve.

Another vision of the future is one in which the cost of deploying these satellites drop to the price of a small car more quickly than anticipated, and tens of thousands of them get launched. The ‘cloud-centric’ and IoT (“internet of things”) possibilities generated by these tiny space robots distributing work among themselves in a specialised way may lead to innovations too awesome to fully contemplate now. Just as we have seen on the terrestrial level.

ANU, please start cranking out those patents.

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