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Africa map
The UN forecasts Africa to double in population by 2050 to over 2 billion people. The Continent grew at 5.6% in real terms in 2013 and is expected to exceed 6% growth for at least the next decade. This explosive growth of a huge continent challenges all aspects of governance and sustainably meeting human needs. (credit: World Bank.)

The prospect of a grand Africa-Europe partnership to accelerate space development

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Africa is a continent with 55 countries and a billion human beings, expected to exceed two billion by 2050. The needs of this vast number of people represent an opportunity for Europe that is comparable to Asia. But Africa starts on Europe’s doorstep. Africa already supplies Europe with vital materials in addition to gold, diamonds, fruit, and cut flowers. The 850 million cell phones in use in Africa are imported, as are most cars, trucks, railroad equipment, and numerous consumer products, many of which come from Europe. But, increasingly apps for cell phones and other software are coming from Africa. While schemes have been proposed to transform the Sahara into a vast solar energy facility beaming energy across the Mediterranean to meet the needs of Europe, few other ideas have emerged to forge a long term partnership between the African Union and the European Union.

The potential of space technology for the Europe-Africa relationship

Africa is the fastest growing continental region in the world, both in terms of its economy and in terms of population, while Europe anticipates a declining population and slow growth. Europe in general has a well-developed infrastructure, strong industrial base, and high educational attainment, literacy, and average income. Both continents face serious problems with often complementing assets and liabilities, suggesting substantial opportunities for collaboration, particularly in the development of civilian space to meet human needs.

While current space programs in Africa are tiny, the rapidly declining costs and the advent of nanosatellites and increasingly powerful communications technologies is opening up major opportunities for African nations.

A promising way to meet the challenge of this explosive growth in the continent that is also the poorest is through technologies that can rapidly scale without large-scale investment in infrastructure. Space technologies are key to any development strategy for Africa. Space technologies enable distant learning via satellite, environmental monitoring from orbit, telemedicine, and other ways to deliver needed services to large, highly distributed populations. There is already 83% penetration of cell phones in Africa while literacy ranges from highs of 96% for Libya to several countries hovering above 20%.

While current space programs in Africa are tiny, with just a few satellite launches and a small number of ground stations, the rapidly declining costs and the advent of nanosatellites and increasingly powerful communications technologies is opening up major opportunities for African nations. Indicative of future trends is the assessment of Professor Calestous Juma of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government: “In its vision to become a middle-income country by 2030, Kenya has singled out scientific and technological advancement as a key driver for growth.” Specific to space, Juma states: “Developing a space sector is not just a vanity effort but a critical investment for national development. Advances in technology are dramatically lowering the cost of running such a program. In fact, several sub-Saharan African countries have space plans or programs, of which Nigeria is the most advanced.” Budgets for space can be expected to increase significantly as African governments and companies within Africa can increasingly afford space technologies to address their needs.

Overall leadership for space technology and space science is increasingly coming from the African Union (AU) with support from the United Nations, as well as from NASA, ESA, and national space agencies. The African Union sees space technology in playing a crucial role in the following priority areas:

  • remote sensing
  • navigation and communication
  • natural resource management
  • environmental management
  • climate change
  • food security
  • defense, peace and security
  • diseases outbreak management

The basis for EU-AU partnership in space

The EU is home to more than 500 million people with a high level of industrial development and educational attainment. While the EU has not been a major player in space development, its role is increasing with space becoming an increasingly significant factor in the EU’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program.

The EU space industrial policy is the linchpin of the Horizon 2020 space-related programming as well as of the European Space Agency. The ESA annual budget (2014) is €4.102 billion while the Horizon 2020 Space budget over the period 2014–2020 is €1.7 billion. The combined European space budget is roughly one fourth of NASA’s budget.

The EU space industrial policy assumes a strong market for space technologies and for the potential of EU-based industry and R&D to compete in this market. Key sectors in this market include manufacturing of satellites, launchers, and other space equipment, and also satellite services. Satellite services include telecommunications (60% of EU-based turnover), navigation services, and earth observation services, such as resources, environment, and security. European manufacturers and scientific research organizations also participate in global markets as well as ESA-driven space science, which creates a market for research equipment. The EU space industrial policy stresses the achievement of technical non-dependence.

Africa has major needs that can be effectively met with the application of space technology and space services utilization that can be developed in partnership with the EU. The EU has developed an innovation-accelerating infrastructure for cross-border, multinational collaboration with its Framework RDT&I programs culminating in the Horizon 2020. A similar process applied to a North-South partnership in space offers substantial promise to both regions.

If a source of wealth were identified that could be developed by 2050 with exponentially increasing cash flows between now and then, the AU-EU partnership could be financed.

Of particular note is that Europe is comprised of many relatively small countries. The more recent members that were formerly part of the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence are particularly noteworthy insofar as, during the Soviet period, they were tasked to develop technical and scientific capabilities to support the Soviet military and space effort. When the Soviet Union collapsed these capabilities remained, but they lost their customer. Now, with many of the countries of central Europe and the Baltic states joining ESA, their legacy space capabilities are gaining more opportunities to be put to use. An EU-AU partnership that expanded these opportunities would accelerate European cohesion policy to bring central Europe and the Baltic states up the EU levels in economic development.

Scenario for AU-EU partnership in space

Presently, Africa has about twice the population of Europe, but by 2050 Africa will be four times as populous. Europe has technology, capital, and a highly developed cultural and educational infrastructure. University enrollments are expected to decline in Europe while they are expected to significantly increase in Africa. This appears to offer the opportunity for significant increases in use of EU educational infrastructure and research capabilities, if a payment mechanism could be developed to make this possible.

If this could be made to work, economic development would advance in both continents, with acceleration occurring in Africa with a particularly strong impact on building the middle class there, thereby also contributing to greater stability. If a source of wealth were identified that could be developed by 2050 with exponentially increasing cash flows between now and then, the AU-EU partnership could be financed.

According to many reports, the solar system is full of incredible resources and sources of wealth. If these future resources could be identified with a defined, feasible method for their economic use, then financing for their exploitation becomes possible. Undersea resources that are assessed using geophysics are used to justify exploration and development that costs billions of dollars where the recovery of exploitable resources has to be projected out to 20 or more years into the future. A comparable calculus is thinkable for space resources.

An argument for use of natural resources of asteroids that are banked has been discussed here previously (see “The asteroid mining bank”, The Space Review, January 28, 2013). A comparable “bank” could be developed on the basis of lunar resources. However, so far neither the extent of resources nor their method of utilization has been sufficiently identified for such resources to be bankable and serve as backing for large scale financing. There are, however, other space resources that could be “bankable” and justify major financing. From 2002 to 2005, ESA conducted a feasibility study of space-based solar power (SBSP). The study assumed that power would be delivered from geosynchronous orbit via microwave beams to receiving antennas (rectennas) in the Sahara desert feeding into the EUMENA grid.

Japan is anticipating use of SBSP and, in fact, includes 2 gigawatts of generating capacity for its needs in orbit by 2030. The Japanese construction giant Shimizu has even proposed putting a belt of solar collectors on the Moon to provide electrical power to the Earth. Such megaprojects might be financed for trillions of dollars. While the required investment is huge, it may require no more than the approximately $100 trillion that the International Energy Agency estimates that will have to be invested in power generation by 2050 to meet anticipated demand. The IEA estimates that “decarbonization” would require $48 trillion but save $71 trillion in fuel costs. This suggests that space development estimates should look at scenarios that may require trillions of dollars of investment because such investments must be made in any case whether the power is generated on space or on Earth. The fact is that in space the sun shines 24 hours a day 365 days a year with an intensity about nine times of the average solar intensity on the Earth.

What if the AU, in partnership with the EU and others, could launch a project that may ultimately require an investment comparable to what the IEA estimates will be needed to generate carbon-free electricity for the Earth by 2050? The Shimizu project of a power-generating beltway on the Moon could well take considerably less than $100 trillion yet supply most of the electrical power required by the Earth by 2050. Construction would be largely robotic. Lunar resources are cheap once the factories have been built. Materials to construct the facility would not have to be shipped from the Earth. But, there are dozens of other scenarios possible for “bankable” resources in space that could finance the development of Africa, the EU, and in fact the rest of the world.

A modest proposal

The African Union could get the ball rolling by getting all of its member states to ratify the Moon Treaty. While many in the space industry consider the Moon Treaty as a failed treaty with only 16 ratifying nations, if all 54 member states of the AU ratified the treaty, the count would be up to 70. Such a treaty could no longer be ignored by anyone. If the EU encouraged its member states to also ratify the treaty, the count would increase by 25 since Austria, Belgium, and the Netherlands are already ratifying states. This task would be eased by the fact that France and Romania have already signed the treaty.

What if the AU, in partnership with the EU and others, could launch a project that may ultimately require an investment comparable to what the IEA estimates will be needed to generate carbon-free electricity for the Earth by 2050?

After the African Union Commission gets the ball rolling by getting its members to ratify the Moon Treaty, it can request the Secretary General of the UN to convene in Africa a meeting of those nations who have ratified the treaty to begin deliberation on the issue of the international regime for the exploitation of the resources of the Moon as called for in Article 11, par. 5, of the treaty:

States Parties to this Agreement hereby undertake to establish an international regime, including appropriate procedures, to govern the exploitation of the natural resources of the Moon as such exploitation is about to become feasible. This provision shall be implemented in accordance with article 18 of this Agreement.

What “international regime” can mean is to identify the wealth resources that can be “bankable” for long-term development of the Moon and other prospective celestial bodies and to develop a method for financing and developing these resources. Among the many outcomes would be a dramatic increase in demand for RDT&I across a very broad spectrum of interests, including long-term habitation of space, the Moon, or other celestial bodies. The European Union has developed the Horizon 2020 process to guide RDT&I to guide and fund research and development and innovation to meet the grand challenges facing Europe. The European Commission could contribute by developing a similar method for RDT&I to accelerate the industrial development of space to meet human needs on Earth through the industrial development of space, starting with business incubators on the Moon and other ways to spark entrepreneurial discovery and innovation. Tens of thousands of students and young scientists from Africa could fill European universities and gain experience in European research centers to be transferred to institutions in Africa, all funded as part of the grand challenge of developing space as the common heritage of all humanity.