Space Technology: Ethiopia’s Ultimate

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Space Technology: Ethiopia’s Ultimate

Sign of Resurgence

 

By Bereket Gebru

06/19/14

Long standing values of nationality and sovereignty have increasingly become old fashioned concepts in today’s international system where the mighty have boundless say on what goes on in countries all around the world. Before it all came down to money and military might, there was some place in the international system for non-interference in the internal affairs of states and some good old ethical values.

Although most values have been replaced by venomous vices that are presented in a much more positive manner than the consequences they are bound to entail, a few things still get those values out in the open withstanding the barrage of bullying in the present international system. A notable member of such things is space exploration.

Whether it was during the cold war or in the present international setting, venturing into space science and exploration has always brought out the pride and sovereignty in states. Ethiopia’s venture into this prestigious arena of science marked by the recent inauguration of the Entoto observatory is also a serious testimony of the country’s ambition in the coming years.

Although there was a time when ancient civilizations in what has become today’s Ethiopia were known around the world for their astronomical, metallurgic and medical knowledge, modern Ethiopia has lagged behind the rest of the world in the modern sense of these disciplines. The ancient Ethiopian book of numbers, “Abushaher”, is especially credited with calculations measuring the distance between the Earth and celestial objects like the moon and the sun. It is also said to have the names of the stars visible over the Ethiopian sky.

It obviously brings pain for a country that was once held in such high regard to become synonymous with famine and poverty. The last two decades of relentless efforts by its people to finally eradicate poverty and reclaim their former prestige have shown encouraging results with the double digit in the last decade cited very frequently as the main indicator. However, anyone familiar with Ethiopia knows that its achievements and ambitions go far more than that.

With great achievements in agriculture, health and educational coverage, Ethiopia has become one of the elite states tipped to fulfill most of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The infrastructural coverage has increased in folds allowing for the development in the country to reach to all its corners. The coverage of roads, electricity, telecommunications and other ICTs has shot up exponentially. Huge ongoing and planned projects of railway construction and electricity generation are also hoped to take the country into the next step – becoming a middle income country.

To help the country’s efforts towards that end, Ethiopia is working on a space observatory and research centre. In fact, the Entoto observatory and research centre, located on the outskirts of the capital Addis Ababa, is nearly complete. Considered a sector for the rich countries of the world, space technology has generally not been a focus area for the poor especially of Africa. So, why would a country like Ethiopia decided to invest in the sector and how does it expect the technology to aid its development?

To have a clear idea of what Ethiopia has ventured into, let’s first take a closer look at the plans and implementations of the project. The Entoto observatory is the first of its kind to be installed by the Ethiopian Space Science Society (ESSS) which was established in 2004. The steady effort of the ESSS in the last decade has managed to introduce astronomy courses in universities. The Ethiopian government is also expected to come up with a space policy in the coming years with a rather higher bar set with plans to launch an Ethiopian satellite sometime next year.

The observatory boasts two one meter wide telescopes that would help explore planets, stars, the Milky Way, and deeper galaxies. This project is the first phase of a space exploration programme with work on a second observatory already underway in the mountains of Lalibela in Northern Ethiopia 4,200 meters above sea level.

The Entoto Observatory is one of the only two observatories south of the Sahara with the other one located in South Africa. The observatory is said to have been designed to promote astronomical research not only in the country but in the region as well. Capacity building and research are said to be the two main targets of the project. The observatory is expected to train people in astronomy, space science, applied maths and applied physics. The research division, on the other hand, includes earth observation, satellite technology, climate modeling and atmospheric science.

The space technology is expected to help the country out in boosting agriculture, health, education, energy and disaster prevention (environmental management). Let’s then have a brief look at how the technology is expected to achieve that in simple terms.

Agriculture: agriculture forms the basis of our food supply. However, it is subject to several challenges, from increasing pressure on soils, water availability, vagaries of weather and climate to unsustainable farming practices. Farmers often face challenges because of water shortages, expensive fertilizers and other chemical products, which also have a negative impact on the environment.

Satellite-based imagery can be helpful in pinpointing problematic areas and drive specific hot-spot surveys. Also, they can highlight trend anomalies when comparing different years. When these data are integrated into agronomic models, crop yields can be forecasted. At continental and global levels, the capability of anticipating variations in crop yield is key to anticipating swings in the markets and therefore enhancing the governance of 'price and food' crises.

Agricultural monitoring is based on a combination of satellite observations, meteorological data, agrometeorological and biophysical modeling as well as statistical analyses. High to low resolution multispectral optical sensors allow the monitoring of several parameters related to crop and vegetative health, such as crop type and area. Using these parameters evaporation and transpiration rates can be derived that help to optimize irrigation and the use of fertilizers. Such data are then used for the continuous monitoring of other important soil properties, such as roughness and soil moisture content.

 

In short, satellite technology can be used to monitor soil properties, optimize irrigation and the use of fertilizers, monitor crop and vegetative health and forecast crop yields making food availability and price a much more foreseeable matter than it has been. Considering these are the areas Ethiopian agriculture needs to put more muscle into, the introduction of this technology would help out in taking our agriculture one step higher.

 

Health: it is known that in developing countries most of the qualified doctors practice in urban centers where as majority of the population live in rural areas. Therefore, the majority of people in countries like ours do not get the services of the most qualified doctors in matters related with their health. That is where telemedicine facilities come in. Telemedicine facilities connect District Hospitals/Health Centers in rural areas with Super Specialty Hospitals in urban centers via satellite for providing expert consultation to the needy majority population in rural areas.

 

The most widely known use of space technology in health care is demonstrated through telemedicine. Telemedicine system consists of customized medical software integrated with computer hardware, along with medical diagnostic instruments connected to the commercial VSAT (Very Small Aperture Terminal) at each location. Generally, the medical record/history of the patient is sent to the Specialist Doctors, who will in-turn study and provide diagnosis and treatment during video-conference with the patient's end.

 

The application of this technology in our country would become a reality with the introduction of space technology and launching of a satellite. Once applicable, the technology would provide the country’s rural population with the highest expert diagnosis in a quick and timely manner. The use of video-conference could also help them get timely medical procedures supervised by top level experts. Another advantage of the technology is that it would cut the costs incurred by patients very drastically as they would not be expected to travel to urban centers and hospitals that charge expensively.

 

Education: one of the main aspects of the application of space technology to education is expressed in the use of satellites for educational purposes. Such programs are mainly intended to meet the demand for an interactive satellite based distance education system for countries. These programs play a crucial role in the development of the population in remote and rural locations.

Much like the telemedicine scheme, satellites can establish connectivity between urban educational institutions and a large number of rural and semi-urban educational institutions to provide an educational infrastructure.

Besides supporting formal education, a satellite system can facilitate the dissemination of knowledge to the rural and remote population about important aspects like health, hygiene and personality development and allow professionals to update their knowledge base as well. Thus, in spite of limited trained and skilled teachers, the aspirations of the growing student population at all levels can be met through the concept of tele-education.

The introduction of such a system to our country would then help achieve universal education besides creating a wide ground for informal education. It would also help teachers with their jobs besides training and informing them on important developments in their discourses. Rural and remote communities would also benefit a lot from such a scheme as it would make other awareness raising information at their disposal.

Disaster Management: by its resolution 61/110 of 14 December 2006, the General Assembly of the United Nations decided to establish the proposed United Nations Platform for Space-based Information for Disaster Management and Emergency Response (UN-SPIDER) as a programme within the United Nations “to provide universal access to all countries and all relevant international and regional organizations to all types of space-based information and services relevant to disaster management to support the full disaster management cycle by being a gateway to space information for disaster management support, serving as a bridge to connect the disaster management and space communities and being a facilitator of capacity-building and institutional strengthening, in particular for developing countries.” (UN-SPIDER)

Space-based technologies such as Earth observation satellites, communication satellites, meteorological satellites and global navigation satellite systems (GNSS) play an important role in risk reduction and disaster management. Global support in disaster management using space technology is also relatively easily accessible in the areas of capacity development and knowledge-building; data access, data availability and information extraction; enhancing awareness; and national, regional and global coordination.

Conclusion

The introduction of space technology in Ethiopia is not just a matter of national pride but a very practical one as well. The benefits briefly discussed above are just a small section of the whole package. Energy, telecommunication, mining, satellite navigation, remote sensing and security are other advantages of the technology.

 

With about USD 3.4 million required to complete the Entoto observatory and the relevant applications it has, the project is not exactly the open check scheme the haves embark on to quench their curiosity about the skies. To the contrary, the project proves to be a conscious investment towards enhancing development and ensuring maximum accessibility to a major part of the country’s population. Therefore, although it is an integral part of the package national pride is just part of the benefits the introduction of space technology offers for a country like Ethiopia.

 

 



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