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Coming soon: Nigerians in space?

Nigeria's space agency is no joke. It has launched satellites and aims to put Africans into space.

“Even in the U.S. some people are opposed to the space program so we are not surprised this happens here,” says Seidu Onailo Mohammed, CEO of the Nigerian space agency. “But we want to assess the problems that have devastated this land. We need to monitor our environment, assess problems of flooding, deforestation — all this can only be done if we have a viable space program. Plus after so many years it’s a good idea to think of an astronaut.”

The country jetted up a $13 million earth observation satellite, made in the U.K. and launched from Russia, in 2003. A much more expensive communications satellite, costing hundreds of millions of dollars, was launched from China in 2007. It failed within 18 months
but a replacement is due to be propelled into space by 2011, paid for by insurance.

But still the Nigerian agency wants more money. The government believes it will all pay off in the end.

Already the earth observation satellite has taken some pretty impressive snaps including pictures of poppy growing in Afghanistan, the state of cyclone damage after Myanmar’s authorities restricted access to international rescue teams in 2008 and, closer to home, identifying the whereabouts of illegal tankers parking far out at sea to steal Nigeria’s oil supplies.

Nigeria has managed to sell about 1,000 of its satellite images and hopes over the course of each satellite’s lifetime such data sales will cover the costs of manufacture and operation.

“We are bringing down space to apply it on the ground,” says Francis Chizea, Director of the Nigerian space agency. “It’s going to be very very important for the economy. We can map the wetlands and advise on areas very good for rice production; monitor desertification in the north; find the best place to locate dams; assess the environmental impact of oil drilling; locate oil spills and track movements on the border.”

It’s all been made possible by a new approach to space science that has let developing nations in on the extra-terrestrial act.

“We’ve been able to shrink a satellite from a double-decker bus down to the size of a TV set,” says Martin Sweeting, the British founder of Surrey Satellites Technology, a radio fanatic as a child who decided space shouldn’t be the privilege of the rich nations. “It’s now possible for an African country to have its own satellite for $10 to $15 million. It can yield real benefits at the right price.”

South Africa, Algeria and Egypt are all marshaling their own satellite facilities, so there’s no question Africa’s scientists are reaching for the stars.