Nigeria conquers space (1/2)

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On September 27, 2003, the launch of Nigeriasat 1, Nigeria’s first satellite, marked both the culmination of a long process and the beginning of a conquest.

Since the 1970s, a handful of Nigerian scientists have become passionate about astronomical studies and space adventure. While the young Nigerian nation, born in 1960, was shaken by inter-ethnic conflicts, a civil war (Biafra, 1967-70) and coups d’état (1966, 1975, 1976), the young astrophysicist Samuel Okoye (1939- 2009), the first African to obtain a doctorate in radio astronomy from Churchill College at the University of Cambridge, launched the first initiatives, under the influence of Professors John Gaustad and Hans Haubolt who introduced the teaching of astronomy and astrophysics to the University of Nigeria during the 1960s.

The Space Research Center

The initiatives came to fruition in 1972 with the creation of the Space Research Center within the University of Nigeria at Nsukka (SRC-UNN). A satellite project was even imagined in 1976. But, due to lack of resources and specialists, the SRC stagnated for five years.

In 1977, the situation improved with a generous financial donation from Nnamdi Azikiwe (governor general in 1960-63, then first president of Nigeria in 1963-66). This allows the university to design a first program relating to astronomy, the development of space technologies and ground observation equipment, and the establishment of an education program in space sciences by promoting the training of engineers, technicians and scientists in the Kingdom -United and India. L’initiative was then supported by President Olusegun Obasanjo (1976-1979) who focused his efforts on education.

The National Space Research and Development Agency

If the years that followed were again punctuated by coups d’état (1983, 1985, 1993) and more or less endemic repression until the death of President Abacha (1999), the federal government decided, following the activism of the SRC, to establish the National Space Research and Development Agency (NASRDA) on May 5, 1999. Reporting to the Federal Ministry of Science and Technology, it is based in Abuja, the management being entrusted to Professor Robert Ajayi Boroffice. The objective is then to “vigorously pursue the acquisition of space capabilities as an essential tool for socio-economic development and improvement of the quality of life of Nigerians”.

NASRDA, whose competences were specified in 2010, supports and encourages initiatives aimed at deploying specialized research organizations such as the Center for Basic Space Sciences (CBSS / Center for Fundamental Space Sciences), the National Center for Remote Sensing (NCRS / National Center for Remote Sensing), the Center for Satellite Technology Development (CSTD / Center for the Development of Satellite Technology), etc. Hosted at the University of Nigeria Nsukka, the CBSS, initiated in 2001 by astrophysicist Pius N. Okeke, prioritizes studies of the upper atmosphere, solar physics and optical astronomy. As for the NCRS, based in Jos in Plateau State, it is responsible for research and development in applications of space science and technology, notably creating the first Nigerian satellites in partnership with the CSTD (located in Abuja).

NigeriaSat 1, Nigeria’s first satellite

Negotiations were then quickly initiated with the British company Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd (SSTL), which offered several countries the construction of small satellites for remote sensing, within the Disaster Monitoring Constellation (DMC). Launched in 2001, the program consists of deploying several microsatellites at reduced costs for the detection of natural or human disasters. If necessary, each country (Algeria, China, Nigeria, United Kingdom, Turkey) can access other satellites.

Having the shape of a cube with a side of 60 cm and a mass of 98 kg at launch, Nigeriasat carries on one hand instruments for the control and operation of the satellite (solar sensors, matte for the gravity gradient control, system of cold gas thruster for orbital corrections, etc.) and, on the other hand, an imager. The latter, with a resolution of 32 meters in 3 spectral bands (green, red, near infrared), has a swath of 600 km making it possible to cover vast regions in a single flyover without having to provide a mosaic of images, with a revisit cycle of 3 to 5 days.

For its part, the NCRS is equipping itself with the means to acquire, process, archive and distribute the data collected by the satellite. For this, a space applications laboratory has been created spread across three regions of the country (Ile-Ife in the southwest, Uyo in the south and Kano in the northwest).

Launch and success of Nigeriasat 1

The satellite Nigeriasat was placed into orbit on September 27, 2003 by a Russian Cosmos-3M rocket, at an altitude of approximately 690 km. Joining the DMC, it provides many warning signs contributing to disaster management in different countries. For example, it brings Americans images of Hurricane Katrina which struck the American coast of the Gulf of Mexico in August 2005, killing more than 1,800 people; NigeriaSat-1 delivers images showing breaches in the dyke system along the coastline and widespread flooding within the city. Well Dother events are followed: floods in Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay, North Korea, Pakistan, China, Vietnam, etc., volcanic eruptions in Colombia and Yemen, fires in California, locust threats in Algeria and Syria , etc. Each time, images from Nigeriasat, as well as other DMC satellites, are made available free of charge.

For Nigeria, Nigeriasat-1 is also used for identify and fight against the risks of desertification (in the north of the country), manage the movement and settlement of populations, fight against potential epidemics (malaria), etc. It also contributes to the resolution of conflicts and border disputes by mapping contested places.

Scheduled for an initial duration of 5 years, Nigeriasat 1 will operate until 2012, delivering several thousand images. Hailed by the Federal President of Nigeria, the undeniable success encourages the teams to build a second Nigeriasat and venture into satellite communications.

(To be continued)

Some references

A study : “The Space Research Centre, University of Nigeria, Nsukka”PN Okeke, in African SkiesVolume 4, p.39-40.

A testimony : “Space landings. Nigeria has joined the space race. Others should also join us », Turner Isoun (former Minister of Science and Technology of Nigeria from 2000 to 2007), in Nature n°456, October 30, 2008,

The NASRDA website :

Philippe Varnoteaux is a doctor in history, specialist in the beginnings of space exploration in France and author of several reference works

John Walker Avatar