Why Ghana Started a Space Program
The West African nation has grand plans for space science, and they start by looking back on Earth.
Julian Bennett, ANUC's space science director, and a team member inspect the newly installed climate-measuring instrument from NASA. Image: Iain Sutherland
Plantain sellers, fruit vendors and market stalls line the road as taxis and local tro tro buses dart through the busy high street. The lively centre of Koforidua, hemmed in by lush green mountains, appears to be the typical Ghanaian city.
A short drive outside town, atop the roof of the All Nations University College (ANUC), history is in the making. Members of Ghana's first university space science laboratory, joined by a NASA engineer, are busily installing meteorological instruments. The installation will provide the university with detailed climate readings from Koforidua and its surroundings and feed back to NASA's global climate database in the US.
The project is the latest achievement for the university which, along with the government and a string of other academic institutions, is helping spearhead Ghana's fledgling space science industry. While often met with scepticism and criticism about spending, the quest to create space science programs in Ghana and across Africa is taking off.
Those involved believe the benefits can be felt across society, with space satellites helping transform everything from agriculture practices to quashing illegal mining, while promoting space education could help encourage Ghana's new generation of engineers and academics.
"[Space science] can benefit Ghana as a whole," said Julian Bennett, the university's space science director. "It is an opportunity for us in Ghana, but it is not easy doing these things from here without the facilities available."
ANUC took its first tentative steps into space science in 2013 by launching a CanSat, a basic can-sized device fitted with antennas and a camera that hovers above ground tethered to a helium balloon and sends images back to ground.
The university has since opened an amateur ground station to study satellites in orbit, made contact with the international space station, installed UHF and VHF antennas, and has plans to launch a CubeSat by 2018, Bennett explained.
"People have this view that space science means launching a rocket or observing faraway galaxies, but in reality a lot of it is actually relating to earth and observations," NASA instrument engineer Jon Rodriguez added.
"The frontier of science is unlimited."
Nestled on the top floor in between university classrooms and engineering laboratories, the epicentre of ANUC's space initiative is a small, unassuming room. Multiple monitors on one side make up its ground station while a prototype of its CubeSat and a white board of ideas draw your attention at the other.
"I remember the very first day we heard a voice," said Bennett. "We were here one evening just tracking satellites… and we turned it on and we could hear a voice. [It's] not very common in our region to hear a live voice signal. We were very excited and jumping around the place."
This excitement for space science was spurred by Ghana's government, which in 2011 launched the Ghana Space Science and Technology Institute (GSSTI). It follows in the path of several other African nations in promoting space science and looking to the final frontier to help address on-the-ground issues and local problems.
Approaching the gates of Ghana's Atomic Energy Commission in Accra, where two guards stand in front, I enter and pass down the long driveway and a cluster of concrete buildings hidden from the roadside come into view.
Individuals in white coats and suits walk around the well-kept lawns as staff from the GSSTI drive me around the complex. Here, development work for the government program is underway, but is kept under wraps during my visit. GSSTI's conversion of a 32-metre satellite antenna into a telescope as part of its radio astronomy project is off limits, although GSSTI said it should be completed in June.
In addition to unveiling a telescope and astronomy centre in collaboration with the South African government, GSSTI has designs to send its first satellite to space by 2020. The government allocated GHC$38.5 million (US$10 million) to nuclear and space science technology in 2015 as it aims to further space education and benefit from its own satellite imagery.
A short drive outside the Ghana Atomic Energy Commission is the University of Ghana's graduate school where many GSSTI staff are based, including Eric Aggrey, a project manager at the institute.
"[People] always see space science as just sending man to the Moon," he explained. "I am very much keen about human development... most of the time our teaching ends on the blackboard and now we can have people practising their skills. [That] will help us a lot."
The government has 20 staff at its institute, while the nearby University of Ghana has started courses in astronomy, as does the Kwame Nkrumah University in Kumasi. ANUC's initiative currently employs six people, and the school has aspirations to start academic courses in astronomy and space science. Outreach programs on space education are also happening at primary schools across the country.
But the value of the nascent Ghanaian space program isn't just for education. At present, the nation is reliant on satellite images from foreign companies, but by having its own independent satellites, Aggrey and others believe significant benefits can be felt across society.
"God willing, we will also go into launching our own satellite. In the next couple of years we are going to be able to clearly define our needs and design a satellite to fill our needs," Aggrey said.
"If we have our own or a regional satellite then we will have a common agenda if it is for agriculture, environmental degradation, storms... then we can use them to address local problems," said Godfred Frempong, chief scientist at the country's Science and Technology Policy Research Institute (STEPRI).
"[In] Ghana, for example, illegal mining is destroying our environment," Frempong continued. "So if we have a satellite [in orbit] we can use it to pinpoint where activity is going on. That would perhaps not be activity of interest to the US, but it is of interest to us."
Illegal gold mining is a major problem for the West African nation, with hundreds of artisanal mines operating across the country. Although there is a dedicated government taskforce, the prospect of having a tailored satellite to monitor the landscape may prove a significant tool in the fight.
The GSSTI's Aggrey says satellite imaging and climate data could also help better manage natural disasters. He believes it could help prevent tragedies like that which occurred in June this year, when at least 25 people were killed in floods across the capital Accra. Climatological data can also make an impact in agriculture, and the University of Natural Resources and Energy in Ghana's central region is another institution looking to "tap into" space and offer solutions to the country's many farmers. The university started its space science initiative in 2012, and has set up a ground station to collect meteorological and weather information. It's scheduled to launch its inaugural satellite in September 2016.
"[The satellite] will be for improving weather [forecasting]," explained Amos Kabo-Bah, acting head of UENR's Earth Observation Innovation Centre. "In Africa [forecasting is] a key problem because data sources are not very good. We will be contributing towards the improvement of weather prediction and supporting the farmers and agriculture."
With almost half of the population employed in agriculture, improving climatological data to better serve the country's farmers could have wide-reaching benefits.
"You can show where we have water and not, the type of crops, where certain crops grow well and it can even detect pollution in the rivers," GSSTI's Aggrey added. "We can design a satellite specifically for Ghana."
The centre, funded through central grants at a cost of GHC$1.5 million (US$390,000), has partnered with the government's forestry, disaster management and fire services to harness satellite data.
"We have intentions of developing the data we receive into what we call wildfire indices," Kabo-Bah said. "We want to be able to tell in West Africa how wildfires occur and we should be able to predict them and send them to all agencies via mobiles who need the information"
Still, one of the biggest challenges for Ghana's space industry remains addressing criticism that it's irresponsible to spend government funds on space initiatives in a country where even amid great urban development, poverty still affects 20 percent of the population, a nationwide electricity crisis continues, and corruption is rampant.
"One of the biggest challenges is getting the average Ghanaian excited about what we are doing," Bennett explained.
"We are coming from a side of the world where it is a challenge getting money to buy food and clothes," Bennett added. "So why should we spend so much money which could have been used to feed so many people just to build a satellites to taking pictures. I don't think the benefits have sunk in yet."
Nearby Nigeria is already benefiting from its own satellites. Its Space Research and Development Agency launched the NigeriaSat-1 in 2003 and now operates several satellites, with imaging data used to monitor oil activity in the Niger Delta, among other focuses.
And others on the continent are following suit. Ethiopia unveiled a US$3 million space observatory in June, Kenya launched a space program in 2012, and Angola is in the process of building a satellite in partnership with a Russian consortium.
It remains to be seen how far Ghana's fledgling space science industry will go, but the prospects look bright as its set of space pioneers continue to develop the country's unlikely forays into space science.
"It is not that we can compete with NASA, but we will build the infrastructure to tap into the knowledge we have here in Ghana," STEPRI director Frempong concluded. "The frontier of science is unlimited."