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Space Race in Northeast Africa: Ethiopian Space Programme Spurring Sudanese and Kenyan Space Efforts

The Nile Delta at night. Image courtesy of NASA.

Ethiopia’s nascent space programme seems to be creating geopolitical ripples throughout northeast Africa, with reports emerging that both Sudan and Kenya are starting to pay attention to Addis Ababa’s space ambitions.

SpaceWatch Middle East reported in January 2017 that the Ethiopian government announced its intention to design, build, and launch its own space launch vehicle and domestically made Earth observation satellites. The space programme came to fruition after the efforts of the Ethiopian Space Science Society, which has over 10,000 members and helped establish East Africa’s only space observatory situated on top of Entoto, a 3,200 meter mountain that overlooks Ethiopia’s capital city, Addis Ababa.

That project was, in large part, funded by the Ethiopian-Saudi philanthropist Mohammed Hussein Al Amoudi, one of the wealthiest individuals in Saudi Arabia and Africa.

In November 2015, the Mekele Institute of Technology in Ethiopia launched a rocket called Alpha Meles to an altitude of 30 kilometres. The Alpha Meles rocket is believed to cost U.S.$2.3 million to develop, build, and launch, but there have been no reports of any subsequent launches of the rocket.

There are a number of reasons why Ethiopia’s space ambitions may not become reality, not least of which are enduring political instability and a rapidly slowing economy. This said, however, space programmes can be remarkably resilient in uncertain political and economic circumstances.

Ethiopian, Sudanese, and Kenyan officials are aware of the political risks involved in starting a space programme during one of the worst famines in northeast Africa in decades, but at the same time recognize that satellites play a critical role not only in providing humanitarian relief, but also in better resource and land management processes and methods that can help reduce the risks of famine occurring in the first place.

Should Addis Ababa manage to establish a practical space programme that can produce capabilities that can improve Ethiopia’s national security and economic development prospects, then it will be the first country in the Horn of Africa, and northeast Africa in general, to become a space power. While certainly not as important as preventing famine, the geopolitical significance of prestige cannot be discounted when spurring countries to start a space programme.

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