Ordinary private passengers are about to travel to space and for a five-minute stay in outer space that will cost USD 200,000. This much money is paid for a 100 kilometers rise in altitude, perhaps floating for a few minutes, and an opportunity to look down to earth from space. This is space tourism. Tickets are being sold and many affluent travelers are preparing for the space voyage.
While the western world creates conditions for fun in space, Ethiopia and many developing countries are longing to join dozens of satellites orbiting the earth.
With a microsatellite that weights some 70 kilograms, Ethiopia joined the race for remote sensing and satellite imagery business in December 2019. The launching of Ethiopian Remote Sensing Satellite-1 (ETRSS-1), is believed to open doors of space sciences for Ethiopia as it wants to place more of its self-made satellites. Currently, the government of Ethiopia is working to send a communications satellite into orbit in three years.
To that effect, a handful of companies have arrived in Addis Ababa in a bid to establish working relations with the government and private companies. Axelspace, a Tokyo based micro satellite manufacturing company, is the latest to join the race. since its establishment in 2008, the manufacturer has built five micro satellites including two private satellites for a company called Weather News, a business demonstration satellite for the University of Tokyo, as well as one for the Japanese Space Agency and one satellite was built for Axelspace’s own interest.
At first, the company was meant to manufacture and supply satellites for a specific set of customers. In 2015, the company was able to raise USD 17 million from Japan-based venture capitalists. Axel Group is planning to send at least 10 satellites weighing 100 kilograms into orbit.
Japanese space scientist Yuya Nakamura, who founded Axelspace and currently leads as President and CEO of the company, was in Addis Ababa for two-day business meetings. A few weeks ago, The Reporter Magazine was able to speak with Nakamura about his interest and his views of microsatellites.
The first satellite Axelspace manufactured when it ventured into the satellite business weighed 1o kilograms and the second grew to weigh 50 and 100 kilos. The company was able to manufacture a new satellite weighing 200 kilograms forJapan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA).
Despite a lack of a clear definition of micro satellite, according to the space scientist, weight can be a good baseline. Satellites that weigh from 10-kilogram up to 200 kilograms are classified under the micro group. Axelspace is focusing on building micro satellites raging between 50 to 200 kilograms.
Nakamura recalls how he was interested in building satellites as a university student. One of his school projects included making Nano or cube satellites, much smaller than micro satellites. He made a 10 cubic centimeter satellite that weighed one kilogram and could be placed in the palm of a hand. From that, he was able to set up his company to manufacture more satellites.
The business for satellite manufacturing is thriving and the private sector is claiming more access to space, a place previously dominated by governments when the market was primarily focused on image processing satellites. The gradual growth of the private sector in the race for space has generated more diverse interests than imagery satellites.
As more private companies join the market there has been a shift to a business to business model. The satellite imagery market used to be a business of specialized experts and professionals who use specialized software. The status quo is changing and ordinary people can now read satellite images as technology is making the service easier to use. The near future satellite market will be a private sector dominated business that anyone could easily access and extract big satellite data to analyze and apply it to their needs.
What’s in it for Ethiopia? Ethiopia has a 10-year plan to launch more satellites and is eager to assemble or build satellites on its own soil.
“Many developing countries want to develop their own satellites. Understandable, but why do we want to have satellites? It’s because we want to have some information and insight. Once we get the information, how we utilize that data is very [necessary],” Nakamura argues. Utilizing satellite data takes more than buying or making a satellite.
Nakamura also gave a lecture at the Addis Ababa University, Technology Institute about the democratization of space, explaining how space is no longer reserved for governments of the developed world. The US and Russia along with China and a few more countries have remained sole colonizers of space for a long time.
The private sector has played a major role in facilitating access to space as the developing world grows eager to join the race – if it can afford to spend the money. It used to require multi-million dollars to build a single satellite. Hence, the race for space was dominated by a few members of the developed world, he claims. In addition to high price, it will take up to ten years to build a single satellite from scratch. For a long time, the private sector of the developed world was not driven to put this much money and time in satellite manufacturing.
Commercialization aspects of outer space were not well entertained much during the early 2000s. When Japanese firms came up with the idea of making Nano and cubic satellites and sending them to space as a doable and affordable venture, dropping costs of satellite manufacturing grabbed business interests.
A turn around in thinking evolved when the wealthy began showing interest in space travel. Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin are competing to monopolize space tourism, encouraging other smaller businesses’ interests in space and satellite markets. If Musk’s vision succeeds, traveling to Mars will no longer be a piece of science fiction or a mission reserved for NASA.
Now, companies’ push for more business outreaches and generating satellite imagery with advanced monitoring frequencies is attracting more customers. This year alone, Axelspace is set to launch four satellites adding the numbers to five satellites harbored in the outer world. That gives leverage for Axelspace access to monitor any part of the earth.
The US is working to resend people back to the moon in 2024. SpaceX project is expecting to send people to Mars in the early 2030s where ordinary travelers could have the possibility to hover around in outer space. Between 2024 and 2028, the International Space Station (ISS) is expected to retire its activities in space and will be replaced by private companies.
11 countries are leading the race for space with their own launching facilities and some 70 countries own satellites across the world. Ethiopia has become one of the ten countries in Africa to join the club where some 7,000 satellites are hovering around space.
Nakamura likened the gradually shifting space economy with the evolution of the internet. “I believe satellite imagery business is going to be like the internet. Most people don’t understand what satellite imagery means since it remains far from their everyday life. But once the number of private companies using satellite imagery increases and [understand] the values, it is going to be a business to clients’ matters soon,” Nakamura said.
Will Ethiopia be able to manufacture its satellite in 10 years? “I have to say that it takes time and there is no shortcut to that. Even for us, it took us 10 years to manufacture a 10-kilogram weighing satellite,” answers Nakamura.
Step by step approach is a very essential method to venture into the satellite making business, “It is good to begin manufacturing satellites with nano or cube satellites instead of focusing on to develop big sizes,” Nakamura advises. Ethiopia needs to train more experts in the field. It must well prepare itself to understand the purpose and how to extract, analyze and utilize the data gathered.
The Reporter Magazine had contacted Solomon Belay (PhD), director of Space Science and Technology Institute to include his views and opinions but didn’t materialize. However, the newly appointed Minister of Innovation and Technology, Abraham Belay (PhD), has instructed institutions to strengthen activities that seek to realize the desire of sending communications satellites to orbit.