Uganda is venturing into the field of space technology, aiming to launch its first satellite in 2022. The project, first announced in 2019, recently took a major step forward with the approval of funding for a ground station near Kampala.
The station, located at the Mpoma facility where Uganda already has two antennas, will serve as the operations and communications center for satellites launched by the government and universities. The existing antennas are associated with Intelsat’s Atlantic Ocean and Indian Ocean satellites.
“The site was chosen because it already had some infrastructure that the country has been using for international telecommunication satellites. This was decided on to minimize on [the] cost of developing new structure,” said Elioda Tumwesigye, Uganda’s minister for Science, Technology and Innovation.
Uganda has already invested significant resources to develop the technology. The country has committed $2 million for technology, research, and development and another $200,000 to improve infrastructure at Mpoma.
Tumwesigye said the satellite and facility will receive capacity-building funding support from Russia and will be launched from Asia. “The satellite will be launched from Japan, but it will be for Uganda,” he said.
In addition, Tumwesigye said, the country is working to establish an education network around space technology; it already sends Ugandan engineers to train at facilities in Japan. Kampala’s Makerere University has recently started a teaching program in space technology.
Security and Education
Judith Nabakooba, Uganda’s minister for Lands, Housing and Urban Development, said Uganda will join the growing list of African countries to have launched satellites: Algeria, Angola, Egypt, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Morocco, Nigeria, Rwanda, South Africa, and Sudan.
Nabakooba said the satellite program will primarily address national security concerns. “We will not be gambling with technology,” she said. “We are sure that our defense and security will improve through improved capabilities for cross-border movement monitoring and surveillance for the country.”
In his 2021 state of the union speech, Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni also prioritized the security benefits of a satellite. He said Uganda is concerned with stabilizing security in East Africa.
The president also emphasized the educational benefits of a space program, pointing to the new space technology program at Makerere University’s College of Engineering, Design, Art and Technology and the possibility of establishing a space camp in Uganda.
“I have asked my officials to work closely with [the] European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Switzerland regarding this program. This will create an opportunity for having a space camp in Uganda,” Museveni said. Ideally, he explained, tutors from CERN would train Ugandan students at the camp.
Investing in Uganda
Nabakooba also stressed the possibility of increased private sector investment in space science, technology, and research and innovation, including foreign direct investment and collaborations.
“Space science is new in Uganda, and we will seek to [work with] foreign countries, including Japan, Russian, and Israel among others that are already developed with high technology and have implemented space science before, so that we can exchange knowledge and use their research as [a] benchmark to improve on ours,” she said.
The satellite venture will also help improve weather forecasts used by the Uganda Civil Aviation Authority (UCAA), added Chris Nsamba, chief executive officer and founder of the African Space Research Program.
“With the change in climate, sometimes the unpredictable weather has been delaying some flights from Entebbe International Airport. But with the satellite, UCAA will have more accurate weather forecasts to allow flights to take off and land at the scheduled time,” he said.
—Hope Mafaranga (@Mafaranga), Science Writer