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Africa is a step closer to setting up its own space agency, with the approval of a planned feasibility study by the 53 member states of the African Union earlier this month.

The African Space Agency, as it would be known, would be intended to help ensure the continent becomes an important player in the global space programme.

The agreement was made at the close of the third African Union Conference for Ministers in charge of Communications and Information Technologies meeting in Abuja last week (6 August).

Ministers said that the feasibility study would also draft a common space policy for the continent, taking into account various existing space technology initiatives.

They added that the continent-wide policy would be developed in collaboration with the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa.

The news follows the first successful launch of a pan-African satellite by the Regional African Satellite Communications Organization earlier this month.

Preparations for the launch began almost twenty years ago, in 1991, but various controversies held it up until 2007, when the satellite was first launched into orbit — only for it to develop technical problems.

The ITU will provide advice to Africa on technical issues involved with setting up the agency, its spokesperson, Sarah Parkes, told SciDev.Net.

Parkes also said that details of the assistance to be provided by the ITU are yet to be defined but stressed that the union would do everything it can to help launch a space agency that would aid development on the continent.

Jonathan Mahlangu, a South Africa-based policy analyst said that the plan by the African Union was long overdue. "Think of the contributions of NASA and ESA to the development of America and Europe," he said. "A well coordinated space agency for Africa will assist in solving most of the challenges before her."

According to Mahlangu the critical mass of experts to kick-start the agency already exists. "All African Union needs to do is to put up a call to her citizens in NASA and Europe to come and contribute with their knowledge."

But others are more cautious. Peter Martinez, coordinator of South Africa's National Working Group on Space Science and Technology, said the idea was premature.

 "A number of African countries should first develop their own capabilities and these [countries] could then take the lead in perhaps forming a continental space agency," said Martinez, who also heads the space science and technology division at the South African Astronomical Observatory.

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