Ethiopia has finally entered its name in the list of countries that have sent satellites to space. The decreasing cost of satellites coupled with their diminishing size has enabled developing countries to ventured into the space realm which Ethiopia has become the latest one to do so.
ETRSS-1, a remote sensing microsatellite was launched from the Taiyuan Satellite Launch Center in Shanxi province of Northern China on Friday, December 20, 2019, carried by Long March 4B rocket. The ceremony was accompanied by huge fanfare from the control center located in the chilly mountainous area on the outskirts of Addis Ababa graced by Deputy PM Demeke Mekonnen and other dignitaries. The grins, hugs, and handshakes at the control center were also accompanied by 12 gun salute.
A gift from China, the launching of the satellite consumed eight million dollars out of which two million was contributed by Ethiopia in the construction of the control center up in Entoto and for the training of 21 Ethiopians who shuttled back and forth between Beijing and Addis Ababa.
Speaking at a peace conference organized by the richest of Amhara and Oromia regions in the evening of the same day, PM Abiy Ahmed (PhD) congratulated the gathering mentioning that “Ethiopia has become among the ten [African] countries to own a satellite” placed at the international space station. Abiy, who reminded the crowd that it is Ethiopia’s season and “Ethiopia would prosper”, did not refrain from admitting that he couldn’t help it but share the happiness flowing within him with the cheering crowd.
“Twelve years ago, I proposed for Ethiopia to have a satellite in space but the response I received at the time was very saddening. Again, four years ago I proposed for the establishment of a space agency that was again turned down for being inapposite at my first cabinet meeting. While I was a minister at Science and Technology, I had the chance to sign an agreement with the Chinese company whose name that you heard today,” Abiy said at the peace conference.
He also said that people wonder if launching a satellite should have received such fun fare, adding that others also criticize the fact that the satellite was launched from China. “I can understand from their saying that they do not know much about satellite. There are 10 African countries that have satellites while only 70 countries own satellites worldwide, but only three or four countries have the capacity to launch. Launching and owning a satellite are different. Even if we produce a satellite in the future, we would send it to China, the US or Russia. I would love to inform you that launching and manufacturing a satellite are not one and the same,” he asserted.
But there are 11 countries with the capacity globally with the capacity to launch a satellite including China, the US, Russia, France, Japan, the UK, India, Ukraine, Israel, Iran, and North Korea.
While the debate regarding this does not seem settled, commentators both from the government and the private sector express optimism about the benefits that the satellite would offer.
Sandokan Debebe, head of the Innovation and Technology Institute, is of the view that let along for the satellite be a wrong priority for Ethiopia, it even is late to do so.
“There are people that say that bread should come first, but I say that we are late. There are more than 7,000 satellites roaming the space and this satellite of ours was the 99th to be launched from the same pad this year,” he said.
For Sandokan, as the purpose of the satellite is for agricultural information gathering as well as climate change and weather monitoring, its final purpose is to provide bread to the people, hence, there is no question of priority here.
“And as long as the technology is useful for us, why wait for others to lead while we could lead or go along with them? We might not also get an orbit to place our satellite at with the lapse of time,” Sandokan argues adding that the satellite would transform the country’s agricultural sector by providing important information that can be used to make viable decisions. This includes when the rainy season would vary when there would be heavy and unexpected rain and so on.
“For a country like Ethiopia whose 80 percent of the population depends on agriculture, it is imperative that we have a reliable prediction and eyes on control on the climatic and weather conditions, flooding, volcanoes, as well as other natural phenomena,” Sandokan points out, adding that “the satellite is a very useful tool for urban development, land management, natural resource management as well as other similar purposes.”
Director of Zynesis Ethiopia, a private entity from Silicon Valley that focuses on big data analytics especially in the health and agricultural sectors, says that the launching of the satellite marks a new era for the country’s information sector.
“The launch of ETRSS-1 is an-historic moment for Ethiopia and a significant leap from a data perspective. ETRSS-1 will allow Ethiopia to collect primary weather, forest resources, and other data that will help us transform the agricultural sector. The new data will be a great addition to what the country has. Data is power. It is the new oil. I have high expectations for ETRSS-1 to provide essential data Ethiopia can combine with what it already has and be able to generate new and powerful insight that can transform our agricultural policies and strategies as well as inform drought protection, environmental protection and emergency relief in an unprecedented way,” Dawit said.
Since the launching of the first-ever satellites into space by Russia, Sputnik I and II in 1957, satellites have evolved much and they are much sophisticated and multi-purpose at a time. While a remote sensing satellite could be used for commercial/ civil purposes it can multi-task as a security satellite too. And there is evidence that such satellites of the early times were used for these purposes. And these possibilities are always posing concerns.
A US Defense Security Agency report dubbed “ Challenges to Security in Space” published in January 2019 states that, “Chinese and Russian space surveillance networks are capable of searching, tracking, and characterizing satellites in all earth orbits. This capability supports both space operations and counter-space [offensive and defensive acts in and through space] systems.”
Accordingly, this could be used for the suppression of dissent surveillance in Ethiopia as well as for Chinese intelligence information gathering; although some argue that this is possible even before this satellite was launched. China has the technology to gather any kind of information from where ever in the world.
But the report raises a red flag by pointing out that, “[b]oth states are developing jamming and cyberspace capabilities, directed energy weapons, on-orbit capabilities, and ground-based antisatellite missiles that can achieve a range of reversible to nonreversible effects.”
The current satellite is also said to open doors for the country’s aspired space force which PM Abiy advocates for by saying that traditional warfare has shifted from fields to cyber and physical space. Hence, Ethiopia would have a space force as part of its military, Abiy said a year ago.
In accordance with this, Getahun Mekuria (PhD), exiting Minister if Innovaton and Technology signed an agreement with the Chinese Space and Cyber Security Agency to cooperate in various fields.