News Column

Onuh - the Problem With Nigeria's Satellite, Space Technology

June 29, 2014

The Chief Executive Officer, Centre for Satellite Technology Development (CSTD) Dr. Spencer Onuh, in this interview with Dele Ogbodo, averred that the problem militating against the development of the country's satellite and space exploration is not the absence of qualified satellite and space engineers but the lack of finance to set up the Assembly Integration and Testing (AIT) centres, which is at the heart of the space programme

Mandate of CSTD The mandate given to us is to indigenously design, and build satellite pay loads. These pay loads can be for communication satellite, it can be for earth observation, it can be for navigation or whatever pay loads you want to design and build. However, people expect us to be at the downstream, but we are at the upstream where we design and build. The applications are different. There are centres responsible for the application areas, but that is not to say that we don't do things that will be of immediate benefits to the man on the street, farmer or even the taxi driver. Developing applications can be of immense use to all these people. For instance, the Nigerian satellites were involved in the missing Malaysian airplane that disappeared from space recently, and like any other satellite, we couldn't pick up any assistance as part of the disaster management constellation. Usually, specific areas are defined for possible location that can be found and so you have to programme the satellites to capture images for specific sites and that is what normally happens.

CSTD Week This year's week is about harnessing our gain of bringing the socioeconomic benefits of space technology to Nigerians. It is also to provide a platform for the exchange of knowledge, for discussion for collaboration. CSTD is a unit under the National Space Research Development Agency (NASRDA). We are only focusing on satellite technology, at this point you talk about innovative small satellites and this can be earth observation satellite, communication satellite, navigation satellite, and meteorological satellites.

Using satellites to fight security challenges For security challenges, satellites are very useful and are versatile tools that can be used and our satellites are no exception. We can capture the images of this country 100 percent on NigeriaSat-X. This satellite that was designed by our engineers and space qualified was launched along with Nigeria Sat2 and it is still orbiting capturing images and downloading. It can capture 100 percent of Nigerian landmarks with NigeriaSatX, and NigeriaSat2 is about 7 percent captured and these images are not for the shelf, they meant for usage or applications areas for the farmers, environmental agencies and security agencies. Everybody pick what they need. But we don't know what they need, except they tell us. However, we make available to them the various data that they need but if they if any of them want something specific, then we can look at that and see which satellite is appropriate, but in an unlikely event that we don't have appropriate satellite we speak to our other satellite operators in other countries, they may charge us but definitely it would be very cheap. That is what we can do in terms of providing images, data relevant to stakeholders we have been doing that.

Locating the Abducted Girls in Sambisa Forest Before now, we have provided the images of the Sambisa forest in the North-eastern part of the country to the military. We have the images of the Sambisa forest, even before we were called upon by the military, when we didn't envisage that there was going to be security challenges. We have the images of the Sambisa forest. That they have not been able to access the forest is not the problem of the satellite centre. We deliver images of all kinds from our satellite; we also train personnel to use them. To date we have been supporting the military and other agencies. Also when our military were in Mali, we were in touch with them, with provided information using our satellite.

And when there was crash in one of air force helicopters, it was our satellites that actually gave them the appropriate image of the land profile of the area where the crash occurred that aided the location of the recovery. We have been working with them, as you know the space agency is not a military agency, we are into research and development. We do our job, if it is useful to you, you come and make request for that information and if there areas that we need to help, we help. We also help in training and providing capacities for the various agencies on the applications of these pay loads. NASRDA has trained over 200 personnel from the various agencies so that they can be able to make use of these data. For instance, those from the ministry of environmental or Police are being trained on different things. NASDRA has done that effectively. When you talk of security risk or looking for people in a particular place, the use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) may be more appropriate and cheaper for us. But issues like Real Time Monitoring (RTM), a UAV is more appropriate. Images are captured from Abuja and it is like Jpeg file. You can see houses and may be some major or minor changes in the locality, such things like the land size or forestation etc. That is what the imaging camera does.

Challenges facing the Satellite Centre Our challenges, fortunately is not even the human capital. We have the human capacity. The human capital that we need to design any satellite is not lacking in the country. We have the engineers and scientists have been trained specifically to design and build any type of satellites. These engineers were trained in China, United Kingdom and United States of America. They are all back. The major challenge confronting us now is the lack of Assembly Integration and Testing (AIT) centres, which is at the heart of the space programme. And that is why my engineers are lamenting and mourning, especially when they see their colleagues from other countries that they studied together from other countries doing better they are in terms of using their knowledge, achieving their mandate. For instance, the Turkish engineers and space scientists were trained together with Nigerian engineers.

They are back to Turkey where they were provide with a bigger AIT centre. Now, they have been able to use it to design the satellite, which was launched from Russia as a result of that they were provide with a bigger AIT. Now, they have designed and built, they therefore launched from Turkey, a functional satellite that is in space now.

So when they see this, they become depressed. However, we are not funded like Turkey, but the little funding that we are get, we are trying to build in phases and see how we can get a full block from what we have and that gave them a little bit of challenge. So, on the lack of AIT centres, we need special government intervention. This is a centre if built will transform the research capabilities of Nigerians, Nigerian Universities and Research institutes. Also it is going to affect how hard currency generation, because we have been testing equipment tools for other countries here and they pay us. We are very much likely going to generate a lot of revenue locally and internationally.

Setting up Assembly Integration and Testing (AIT) Centres I would know it off hand, but it has a due process. It has been approved by the Federal Executive Council (FEC). All that is left is the release of fund especially since we have been given a mandate to produce a made in Nigeria satellite by 2018. The Centre is ready and that has always been our position.

However, we have some challenges with optical satellite and on our road map, the next phase should have been Synthetic Aperture Radar Satellite (SARS), and we are ready to go into designing and manufacturing it here and to be space qualify.

Assistance to Universities and Research Institutions What we do is to assist universities. The mandate of the space agency currently does not include the establishment of degree awarding institutions. What we are presently doing is to go into a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU), with some universities to help them set up aerospace engineering, which is directly related to satellite. That is where most satellites engineers come.

Like the Lagos State University, we have helped them developed a curriculum which is now at their council stage for approval. We have also had discussion with Kogi State polytechnic, to help them develop curriculum and support them staff wise for the programme of OND and HND in aerospace engineering. We have signed the MoU. And also our staff will be released to go there to teach and run their laboratories. Also we have entered into a MoU with the University of Uyo, we are at the same level with LASU. For the University of Abuja, we are trying to formalise the MoU also with them. They want to run aerospace engineering because of the equipment they have already ordered for the course. In the whole of the continent in Africa, it is only one university that runs aerospace engineering. Nigerian students go western nations to study aerospace engineering and these are huge capital flight out of the country. If one or two universities can be supported and which we are supporting them to run this programme, then we can be producing engineers to run this programme.

Input from the Satellite Centre for Telcos It is our responsibility, if they let us know what they want. However, the issue of broadband is not just peculiar to Nigeria alone; it is a new thing across the globe. There was a conference recently in Dubai, specifically targeted towards that and to show you that the whole world is going toward that and that we the Nigerian delegates make sure that satellite was brought in because it is key to us especially where there are areas that are areas that are accessible. For instance, in a place like Abuja, how many homes are receiving broadband services, that is the level that are and that is why Nigeria is looking at for the next phase. If we are challenged to do it we can do it.

Funding Hiccups When you give somebody a mandate you fund that mandate. Now we have been told to develop a Nigerian satellite by 2018, that is a mandate, we expect an intervention to achieve that. OK, say in the next five years, we would need another communication satellite, what do we need to do this, and they would ask us what do we need to achieve this, we would let them know. In Pakistan, what the government did with the space agency was to say look in the next five years we need one communication satellite, one earth observation satellite that would be launched, they achieved that.

The government has given them another target that in the next seven years they need a high resolution earth resolution satellite, they are now working on it and as at two years ago, they showed me a modem which is in their AIT. They have not used anything that is space qualified, it is a cheap one. It can do whatever any satellite in space can do, but you cannot send it to space because the material that are used are not space-qualified, but they know what to do to be space qualified. We only have one communication satellite, God forbid, if anything happened to that one today, we are troubled.

There is also a need for back-up. We have made a case that there is a need for a back-up, all you need is to transfer the data on to the one that is a back-up. But it has not gone well with the government obviously and understandably, the meagre resources are being spread thinly. We know we need another communication satellite.


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Source: AllAfrica


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