The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

GPS satellite
Space technology applications of GPS, provided by existing satellites like the one above, may be better for developing nations that building their own spacecraft. (credit: Boeing)

Space technology and the developing world

When a Kosmos-3M booster lifted off from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in northern Russia last month, most of the media attention surrounding the launch focused on just one of the six small satellites the rocket boosted into low Earth orbit. NigeriaSat-1 is a relatively ordinary microsatellite, weighing in at under 100 kilograms, virtually identical to two other satellites, the Turkish BilSat-1 and the British UK-DMC, also placed into orbit by the same rocket. However, NigeriaSat-1 was the first satellite paid for by the populous but poor African nation of Nigeria, and that fact propelled the satellite into the world headlines.

“It’s a great feat for Nigeria,” Joseph Akinyede of Nigeria’s National Space Research and Development Agency told the Associated Press. “We have a footprint in space.”

It may be a great feat, but it is also an expensive one. NigeriaSat-1 cost an estimated $13 million, a pittance for a developed country but a significant sum of money for a developing nation like Nigeria, a country with an annual budget is just over $3 billion and with $30 billion in foreign debt. While Nigeria is the most populous nation in Africa and in the top ten in the world, with over 130 million people, it is also one of the poorest: its per capita GDP of $875 puts in among the 25 poorest nations on the planet. Over one-quarter of its workforce is employed, 60 percent of the populace live below the poverty line, and the country is further burdened by having more HIV/AIDS cases than any other nation except South Africa and India.

$13 million for a satellite is a major expenditure for a developing nation.

Much of the $13 million spent on the project actually went to a British satellite manufacturer, Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. (SSTL), which specializes in microsatellites. SSTL helped organize the Disaster Monitoring Constellation (DMC), a fleet of microsatellites that include NigeriaSat-1, BilSat-1, UK-DMC, as well as AlSat-1, an Algerian-funded satellite launched last year, that will be used to provide images to aid in the coordination of disaster relief efforts. The DMC will later include satellites from China, Thailand, and Vietnam.

Given those circumstances, some have questioned the need for the spending that money on a satellite when there are arguably more compelling domestic uses. “It looks like what could be a white elephant,” Kayode Fayemi, head of the Center for Democracy and Development, a Nigerian policy think tank, told the Los Angeles Times. “In the scale of preference, this doesn’t qualify as the most-needed project.”

Nigeria is not alone among developing nations. Many other countries are investing, in relative terms, significant funds on space projects like satellites and small launch vehicles. While these programs may have stated scientific (or military) goals, a primary impetus for many of these programs is prestige. A country that can build and launch (or at least pay for building and launching) a satellite has the appearance of a country that is more developed, closer to the United States and Europe than its neighbors and rivals.

Prestige vs. effectiveness

In the long run, though, such prestige programs may not be the best investment in space technology. That message was the underlying theme of a one-day symposium on space technology and the developing world held on October 4 across the street from United Nations headquarters in New York. The event, sponsored by and the National Space Society, looked at more effective, if lower profile, means of using space technology to provide improvements to developing nations.

Rather than invest scarce resources to build yet another microsatellite or small launcher, conference attendees argued for using existing space-based resources, such as GPS and communications satellites, to create applications that can meet the needs of the developing world. “GPS and telecommunications are the two space-based technologies that have changed everyone’s life,” noted Taylor Dinerman, publisher of and conference organizer.

One example of relevant applications of space technology is precision agriculture, where GPS is used to provide accurate maps of cropland, allowing farmers to manage their crops by the square meter, rather than the square kilometer, and thus saving scarce and expensive resources like water, fertilizer, and pesticides. Nate Johnson of the US State Department, which has been promoting GPS applications in the developing world, notes that precision agriculture is especially beneficial in Sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, and other regions where the environment has a great impact on the ability to produce crops.

Remote sensing can also play a significant role in monitoring the environment of developing nations. Eric Sanderson of the Wildlife Conservation Society noted that his organization has used images from spacecraft like Landsat 7 to monitor changes in land usage, oceanic productivity, and air and water pollution. Sanderson gave one example of a project to measure changes in the Bukit Barisan Saletan national park in Indonesia, the largest lowland tropical forest on the island of Sumatra. Those images, dating back to the mid 1980s, trace how illegal development has destroyed hundreds of square kilometers of forest.

“GPS and telecommunications are the two space-based technologies that have changed everyone’s life,” noted Dinerman.

Communication satellites, meanwhile, have helped enable new applications like telemedicine and distance learning that allow for the easy transfer of knowledge from the developed world to the developing world. Johnson pointed to one example of a joint telemedicine project in Asia between the US and India; India is providing capacity on one of its communications satellites for the first two years of the project, after which the US will take over funding for the project using another, yet to be determined satellite.

Dinerman argued that the current weak commercial market for satellites and launches is an opportunity to further such applications. “This is the moment where NGOs [non-governmental organizations] could support regional consortia to buy spacecraft and launch vehicles to create services at deep discounts,” he said. However, the NGOs need to act now before the commercial market rebounds. “The window is closing,” he warned.

In the long run, applying existing space technologies to solve critical problems is a far better investment than the short-term gain realized by putting one’s flag into orbit. Unfortunately, applications like precision agriculture and telemedicine don’t have the perceived prestige that the launch of a small satellite provides a nation. Getting past that problem may be the biggest hurdle space technology faces to helping meet the needs of billions around the world.