Yes, Nigeria has a space programme. Since 2003 the West African country has been operating its own satellites, three of which are currently collecting data from Earth orbit. But this week Nigeria’s space agency came under fire after UK newspaper the Daily Mail reported on British politicians questioning why Nigeria is spending money on satellites while accepting foreign aid for the large proportion of its citizens who live in poverty.
In fact, the country’s satellites support food production in the region and disaster relief around the world – including helping with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in the US.
Nigeria’s National Space Research & Development Agency (NASRDA) launched its first orbiter, NigeriaSat-1, in 2003. The roughly $13 million cost was paid for by the Nigerian government, but it was built by Surrey Space Technology (SST) in the UK and launched from a Russian spaceport.
The spacecraft was equipped with high-resolution optical and infrared cameras. “They are there to look at agriculture production, improving food security,” says Audrey Nice of SST. The satellite was also designed for environmental monitoring, such as tracking desertification and even locust swarms.
Eye on disaster
NigeriaSat-1 lasted until 2012, four years longer than expected. It was succeeded by NigeriaSat-2 and NigeriaSat-X, which both launched in 2011 carrying similar instruments. These satellites were also made at SST, with Nigerian engineers helping to build the latter. In addition to a continued environmental mission, the satellites’ high-resolution images of the country will help Nigeria review electoral boundaries ahead of its general elections in 2015.
The NigeriaSats are also part of the international Disaster Monitoring Constellation, coordinated by SST. This network of satellites includes Chinese, Spanish and UK spacecraft that can provide rapid images from space when environmental disasters strike.
In 2005 NigeriaSat-1 was the first satellite to send back pictures of the east coast of the US following Hurricane Katrina, says Nice. And the orbiter contributed images to aid workers following the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. Nigeria provides disaster-related imagery for free, but the country generates income from the satellites by selling other image data.
NASRDA also commissioned a Chinese-built communications satellite, NigComSat-1, that launched from China in 2007. The satellite lost power a year later and was replaced in 2011 by NigComSat-1R, which is currently providing broadcast and internet services in Nigeria.
By By Jacob Aron