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Most developing countries have not been major players in promoting the use of space technology. Last week's launch of the first of a series of micro-satellites shows that this is changing.

Mention the Nigerian space programme to anyone outside the space field, and you can expect the same sceptical smile that greets a reference to the Jamaican bobsleigh team. What, the cynic will ask, makes a developing country think that it can — or should — aspire to become a significant player in a field dominated by the large, industrialised economies? And how can such a technology contribute towards their very down-to-earth and pressing demands of social and economic development.

But talk of the way in which space-based techniques can be of practical value — such as the use of remote sensing satellites to indicate when the soil conditions are right in a certain area for sowing a particular crop, or for predicting when a fishing fleet is likely to be hit by a sudden storm — and the relevance of the technology to such a country's development needs suddenly becomes much clearer.

Extend this discussion to the fact that any country that seeks to exploit a modern technology requires its own capacity to understand that technology and shape it to its own needs, and the concept of Nigeria — or any developing country, for that matter — setting up its own space programme to do precisely that, does not seem so far-fetched. Indeed, once a space programme is viewed not as a politically-motivated effort to generate international prestige but as a practical form of harnessing modern science to social priorities, and a strong case can be made that other developing countries should follow Nigeria's example. But the gulf between need and reality in this area remains wide. Some of the larger and more technically advanced developing countries — such as Brazil, India and China — have long been proud of their space efforts. Smaller countries have preferred to remain the clients and customers of Western space agencies, buying satellite images and telecommunications services off the shelf. But these countries often lack either the skills required to make optimal use of these technologies, or the knowledge and influence to ensure that the services they are offered are tailored to their specific needs.

A first step for developing countries

There are signs that this is changing. A significant step took place last week with the successful launch of a satellite by Algeria, a country not previously thought of as having a space capability. The satellite, Alsat 1, was carried into orbit by a Russian launcher from the Plessetsk Cosmodrome, 600 kilometres north of Moscow. It marks the start of an ambitious national programme by Algeria to turn space into a tool for both scientific and economic development. To quote Azzedine Oussedik, director of the country's National Space Technology Centre (CNTS), the project "has trained Algerian specialists to bring the benefits of space to our nation and its people".

Other countries — including Nigeria, Thailand, Turkey and Vietnam — will soon be following in Algeria's footsteps. For Alsat 1 is the first in a series of five micro-satellites that will, when each has been launched, be able to operate jointly as a disaster-monitoring service (see Disaster-monitoring satellite blasts off). Together the satellites will be able to provide daily photographs of disaster sites in situations where a single satellite would only be able to pass over the same location once every four or five days.

On a more routine basis, the micro-satellites have a wide variety of potential applications, each being tailored to the specific needs of the country that has paid for it. In Algeria's case, for example, the satellite, which cost the country US$15 million, is expected to be used in areas such as agriculture, fisheries, water resources, cartography, land registration, meteorology, and mapping oil and other mineral reserves.

Geographical information and sustainable development

The value of what is becoming known as integrated Geographical Information Systems (GIS) — using a combination of terrestrial and space-based observations — is becoming increasingly recognised. Last summer, for example, a report prepared by the US National Academy of Sciences as a contribution to the World Summit in Johannesburg argued that such information, and thus the techniques for collecting it, have become an invaluable support for decision-makers as they work towards sustainable development (see Down to Earth: Geographical Information for Sustainable Development in Africa).

But as the report points out, while the potential of such technology has been demonstrated in this field, achievement in formulating the needs of users — especially in Africa — in a way that the technology can meet lags behind. This is despite the fact that, as the report states, "needs-driven, as opposed to prescriptive, approaches, with provision of information in appropriate and useable forms, are most likely to result in effective applications of geographical information".

According to the academy's report, for example, even though the requirements for the next generation of remote-sensing satellites are currently being defined and developed, there appears to be little dialogue in Africa between the space agencies and donor organisations, and even less input from potential end-users of the data.

The challenge of capacity building

This is not just an administrative challenge. As the countries planning to launch their micro-satellites have each realised, making full use of space technology means building a national capacity to handle that technology and shape it to one's own needs. Algeria, for example, has raised over US$30 million to build its own micro-satellite construction unit, where the successor to Alsat 1 will be built. And Nigeria, too, has initiated a programme for training space technicians, in the hope that the country can also become directly engaged in producing space technology.

The successful achievement of such goals, however, requires a political commitment based on recognition of the social and economic benefits that a realistic space programme can bring. Such a commitment is needed to provide the basic investment in the training courses and research facilities that underpin successful engagement in space activities. It is also needed to ensure that all the relevant sections of civil society are able to contribute to a broad discussion of how a country's needs can best be met through space technologies.

It is clear that this commitment now exists in Nigeria and Algeria, just as it has for several decades in some of the larger developing countries. Elsewhere, however, engaging in space technology continues to be seen too often as an exotic luxury, epitomised by the way that Nigerian space officials find themselves consistently having to counter the charge that they are seeking to land a Nigerian on the moon (see Nigeria answers critics of space plans, 15 November 2001).

Last week's satellite launch, and its (hopefully successful) successors, will perform a valuable function in helping to put the record straight.

© SciDev.Net 2002

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