Inside Kenya’s Sh100m nanosatellite project


University of Nairobi on May 11. FILE PHOTO | NMG

Three months ago, Kenya launched its first space nanosatellite, thrusting the country to the centre of cutting-edge technology. This was a moment of glory as the breakthrough ushered the country into the hallowed ground of elite innovators if not in the world, at least in Africa.

During the launch of the technology dubbed Nanosatellite Precursor Flight (1KUNS-PF), also known as CubeSat, what it did not come out clearly is how the project will benefit the country. Now a report by the University of Nairobi says Kenya stands to reap big from the innovation. Such technologies, the report notes, have a variety of uses, pre-eminent of which is collecting useful data crucial for monitoring and managing its resources better.

The report shows that the technology conducts earth mapping, earth observation, land use and environ monitoring, weather forecasting, food security mapping and forecasting. It is also crucial for communication, disaster management, coastline and border monitoring, outer space observation, management of forests, livestock and wildlife monitoring and management.

The new technology was deployed into space by Japan’s aerospace exploration agency on 11 May and screened live at the University of Nairobi’s Chandaria Centre of performing arts auditorium.

With the launch of 1KUNS-PF, the only fifth in Africa, Kenya joined four other African countries – Egypt, South Africa, Ethiopia and Nigeria —that have launched one satellite each.

According to the Index of Objects Launched into Outer Space maintained by the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA), there are 4,635 satellites currently orbiting the planet, an increase of 8.91 per cent compared to last year. Russia launched the first satellite, Sputnik 1, in 1957.

“Our economy will become tech-driven. Reliable data will be for early warning systems and data marking. Weather data will be key in disaster preparation,” says the report

Kenya’s nanosatellite is the size of a soccer ball and is able to deliver a detailed imagery and information about a territory from space. This means technology advances have become smaller and cheaper, enabling developing countries such Kenya to cost-effectively collect troves of valuable data to be able to effectively manage its affairs and resources. Few years ago, the cost of developing such an advanced piece of technology was prohibitive to developing nations, making them a preserve of the wealthy West.

The nanosatellite’s lead scientist Prof Jackson Mbuthia told Enterprise that even though the country already made one of its greatest leaps in the technology sphere by launching its first space satellite, the scientific community still remains relentless with plans to produce “bigger projects”. Building the human capital and a satellite development capacity requires a long term commitment to a space science program, he added.

“We are still doing more research to have bigger and better technologies in the country. This is just the beginning. When you come back here (University of Nairobi) in about one year from now, we will be able to show you bigger things that we have and the way forward,” said Prof Mbuthia who is also the dean, School of Engineering and Architecture, at the University of Nairobi.

The UoN report shows that the nanosatellite proposal was first submitted on 31 March 2016 by Prof Mbuthia and Prof Heywood Ouma of department of electrical and information engineering, to the United Nations, Japan Cooperation Programme.

Following the submission of the proposal, UoN won a grant leading to the development of the 1KUNS-PF.

The Kenyan team also composed of Prof Vitalis Oduor, UoN’s lecturer of Cube satellite antennas and communications and about 33 undergraduate and postgraduate students who participated in building the CubeSat. They coordinated with colleagues from the University of Rome.

The end product — the nanosatellite – is a 10 cubic centimetre first outer space object registered by Kenya. The gadget consists of two commercial cameras and experimental web audio upload and broadcast, capable of limited earth observation and audio broadcast. Power is stored in two rechargeable battery packs and silicon solar panel, coupled with computer, communication system, GPS receiver and telemetry - an automated communications process by which measurements and other data are collected at remote or inaccessible points and transmitted to receiving equipment for monitoring.

The report shows that depending on the mission goals for each year of the space program, the cost of design, manufacture, launch per minimum satellite and gradual setting up of the requisite laboratories require a financial commitment ranging from $500,000 to $1million (Sh100 million) annually.

A student records a live transmission using a mobile phone during the public viewing of the deployment of Kenya’s first nanosatellite (CubeSat) from the International Space Station (ISS) at the