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Pop!Tech – The Nigerian Space Program

Robert Boroffice has an improbable job – he’s the head of Nigeria’s space agency, NASRDA. Andrew Zolli makes the predictable Jamaican bobsled team joke in introducing him, but Boroffice clearly has a sense of humor, telling us that one out of every five Africans is a Nigerian, and one of every five 419 scams we get comes from Nigeria… but he doesn’t have any money for us to transfer.

Why would Nigeria want to have a space program? Boroffice gives some examples of environmental problems that are best monitored from space:
– Gulley erosion in eastern Nigeria
– Desertification in the North, proceeding at 3 km per year
– Deforestation in the south
– Pollution from industrial waste, oil exploration and mining

In 2003, the agency launched Nigeriasat 1, a small low-earth orbit satellite which weighs only 45 kilograms. The satellite is focused on earth observation, and is capable of creating images at 1-2 meter resolution. It was surprisingly cheap – aboput $13 million, and was launched from A Russian rocket.

This year, NASRDA launched a communcations satellite, a more significant investment. It’s five tons, in geostationary orbit, and focuses on providing a strong communications signal footprint over Nigeria. He argues that most satellites covering Nigeria are repurposed and ageing satellites towed into new orbits – this is an Africa-focused satellite. A new imaging satellite, Nigeriasat 2, is planned for 2010.

Boroffice has lots of reasons why Nigeria should be launching satellites. He suggests that launching a satellite is a major way of addressing digital divide issues, noting that there are more internet subscribers in New York City than in sub-Saharan Africa. He argues that a Nigerian satellite will have major implications for telemedicine and tele-education. NASRDA is supporting pilot projects that link regional hospitals to teaching hospitals in major cities via satellite. He shows us a mobile clinic on bus, and a clinic on a boat designed for the Niger delta. Similar pilot projects are linking students in rural universities with urban ones.

(It’s worth noting that similar pilots are underway in other African nations that aren’t launching their own satellites, but are simply renting time from commercial satellites.)

Imaging applications for Nigerian satellites include monitoring pest infestation to maintain food security. He shows how satellites have been used to locate ideal areas for planting rice and cassava. The government is also hoping to use satellite imagery to track urban sprawl and plan more efficient cities (think Abuja, rather than Lagos) as well as laying out railroads.

Could Nigeria just have used Google Maps? Probably not – but they might have been able to pay for better satellite imagery, rather than deploying their own. Boroffice has clearly practiced making the case for Nigerian satellites and he’s got some exciting uses for the imagery that’s being generated.

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