The Nigeria-South Africa Bi-National Commission is a laudable idea. It was established in 1999 to strengthen the relationship between Nigeria and South Africa on trade, economy, politics and governance.
But it has one missing element. That is cooperation on space activities. Cooperation on space between the two countries would advance the efforts of the African Outer Space Programme.
The space programme is one of the priority areas of the Agenda 2063, the African Union’s framework for regional integration and socio-economic development.
African Heads of States and Governments adopted the African Space Policy and Strategy in 2016. The policy guides the implementation of the African Outer Space Programme. There is also the African Space Agency which was established in 2018 to coordinate space activities in the continent.
But the successful implementation of the AU’s space programme depends on cooperation between Nigeria and South Africa. They are the top two countries in the region in terms of economy, science and space.
Space cooperation between Nigeria and South Africa is not only advantageous on its own. It can be used to achieve other goals, including job creation for both Nigerians and South Africans through joint research.
There are four thematic areas which could underpin their cooperation. They are earth observation, satellite communication, navigation and positioning, as well as space science and astronomy.
Potential areas of cooperation
Earth Observation: This entails taking pictures of the Earth surface from an elevated platform. These are then analysed, interpreted, and the findings used for policy and decision making.
Among platforms that are used for taking these pictures are balloons, aircraft, High-Altitude Platforms (HAPs) and satellites. Of these, only satellites are the most stable.
These polar-orbting satellites would be more useful to South Africa because it is closer to the Antarctic. In addition, South Africa has the capability to process, analyse and interpret data.
Cooperation on space between the two nations would give South Africa access to images from these Nigerian satellites. Nigeria would, in turn, gain access to South Africa’s technical knowledge.
Nigeria and South Africa are among the four signatories to the African Resource Management Constellation. Signatories donate a satellite to the constellation, giving them access to data from other satellites. Of the four signatories (Algeria and Kenya being the other two), only Nigeria and South Africa have contributed satellites, though the satellites have passed their life-time. Nigeria-South Africa space cooperation could be a step towards reviving the initiative.
Each country would also benefit from the other’s networks. But this would require that Nigeria and South Africa have a working data access and sharing agreement. Nigeria is part of the disaster monitoring constellation (DMC), alongside Algeria, Turkey and the United Kingdom. South Africa is part of the BRICS remote sensing satellite constellation.
Satellite communication: This is used for long-distance communication and for connecting remote parts of a country. Satellite communication services in Nigeria and South Africa are mostly run by foreign companies.
In 2011, Nigeria procured from China a communication satellite, Nigcomsat-1R. The objective was to reduce communication costs and to increase rural connectivity.
South Africa is building its first communications satellite, but this is being delayed by funding.
South Africa could licence Nigcomsat Limited to operate which could reduce the cost of communication services in South Africa.
Navigation and Positioning: The Global Navigation Satellite System is used in a number of applications, including precision agriculture, exact timing, and surveying.
The Chinese and the European Union are pushing for their navigation satellite services to be used across Africa. The EU has extended the operation of its Space-based augmentation system into Africa. China is advocating for the use of its Beidou system .
The interoperability and compatibility of these global navigation satellite systems hasn’t been resolved. This leaves the African continent at a risk of errors, inconsistencies or total loss of satellite navigation services.
Hence, there is an urgent need for African countries to cooperate, coordinate and harmonise satellite services. South Africa and Nigeria can take the lead.
Space Science and Astronomy: Astronomy is the study of objects and processes that occur outside the Earth’s atmosphere.
South Africa has several astronomical facilities. These include the Hartebeesthoek Radio Astronomy Observatory; South African Large Telescope; South African Radio-Astronomy Observatory; South African Astronomical Observatory; and SANSA Space Science (formerly called Hermanus Magnetic Observatory).
The South African Astronomical Observatory’s optical telescopes at the Sutherland station have been upgraded. They can now be operated remotely from anywhere in the world via the Internet. Thus, astronomers in Nigeria can tap into the South African telescopes from their desktop computers.
They only need to negotiate observing slots with the South African Astronomical Observatory.
There is increasing interest in how the Sun affects the Earth and its environment, referred to as Space weather. This phenomenon can disrupt power supply and satellite navigation signals.
It is therefore mutually beneficial for Nigeria and South Africa to cooperate on space weather and atmospheric research. This will further their understanding of the solar weather phenomenon, predict its occurrence and then prepare for it.
To facilitate space cooperation, there are some immediate actions Nigeria and South Africa could take.
These include establishing a Nigeria-South Africa Space forum. This will serve as a platform for interaction and exchanges between professionals from both countries. An example of such is the U.S-Japan Space Forum.
The forum could advise governments on common positions, including policy issues such as long-term sustainability of outer space and spectrum management.
The cooperative agreement between Nigeria’s National Space Research and Development Agency and the South African National Space Agency should be strengthened.
Nigeria and South Africa could appoint experts on space as science attachés in their respective embassies. This would ensure speedy exchanges and necessary support for visiting professionals.
Nigeria and South Africa need to develop a comprehensive strategy for space knowledge and related workforce development. This includes a review of school curriculum as well as the training programmes of institutions dedicated to space education.
by : Etim Offiong, Scientific Officer, Obafemi Awolowo University