Affordable Space Programmes Becoming Part of South’s Development

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions

New UNOSSC banner Dev Cha 2013


Space: the final frontier. At least that was how heading off into the stars was portrayed in cult television and film series Star Trek. While many countries are working to raise living standards and eradicate poverty on earth, some are also looking to space for solutions to earth-bound problems.

Traditional space programmes were government-led and state-financed. They involved enormous armies of technicians, engineers and scientists. Each launch and mission had to be overseen by a vast mission control centre with row upon row of technicians watching computer screens in real time. Space technology advanced rapidly in the 1950s and 1960s with so many bright brains hard at work and with brave people willing to put their lives at risk, leading to humans walking on the surface of the moon in 1969.

All of this expensive expertise meant few governments had the resources to set up space programmes – and it was even out of the hands of most of the private sector. In time, these leviathan space efforts lost the financial support of governments and the pace of new developments and achievements slowed. Nobody has set foot on the moon in 40 years – or on any other planet, for that matter.

But various developments are changing the space scene today and promising a bright future and a return to rapid innovation.

Space programmes are playing a greater role in the economic and innovation strategies of countries in the global South. New technologies and trends are turning space exploration into more affordable, small-scale operations within the reach of many countries.

New information technologies and innovations in miniaturization mean satellites can be very small and light. These developments bring down costs considerably, and also reduce the number of people needed to monitor space missions.

For example, on 14 September 2013 Japan’s space agency, JAXA, proved a slimmed-down space launch can work when it fired off its Epsilon rocket with a small satellite onboard. What made this mission different was how little it took to monitor the mission: just two laptop computers  and a small team of eight people. Previously, similar missions required a team of 150 people.

Fewer people meant the launch was much cheaper. One of the reasons for having many people involved in the launch of a rocket is the need to perform multiple systems checks to make sure the launch is successful. The Epsilon is a “smart” rocket and saves on the need for people to micro-manage the launch procedures by having its own on-board computer with artificial intelligence (AI) capable of doing the laborious checklists before launch.

Billing itself as “The first Latin American space development company,” Colombia’s Sequoia Space ( was established in 2008 to build miniature satellites (called nano or pico satellites) that are affordable to countries in the global South.

Located in Bogota’s trendy neighbourhood of Chapinero, Sequoia has set itself up to exploit the technological trend towards making things smaller and smaller.

The firm manufactures satellites that range in size from 1.3 kilograms to 16 kilograms and are custom built for the customer’s needs. One satellite it is working on for the Colombian air force weighs 4.5 kilograms. It can make satellites to conduct missions in earth observation, remote sensing, micro-gravity experiments and other scientific experiments.

The company was launched in 2007 by a team of Colombian engineers, who turned their extensive experience in developing satellites for the aerospace industry into a start-up. Their dream is to further develop the aerospace industry in Latin America and grow its role in the global space industry. They hope to make it possible for more and more countries in Latin America to carry out space missions.

The company currently has clients in Colombia, Chile, Ecuador and Peru.

Other Latin American space programmes include Peru’s CONIDA ( Its mission is to “To promote, to research, to develop and to disseminate science and space technology for national interests, in order to create unique and differentiated services driving national development.”

Ecuador’s Ecuadorean Civilian Space Agency (EXA) ( has had a rough ride with its space programme with the failure of the Pegasus nano-satellite. Ultra-small, Pegasus was a small cube measuring just 10 centimeters along its edge and weighing just 1.2 kilograms (BBC). It was launched on 25 April 2013 from the Chinese spaceport of Jiuquan ( but collided with a cloud of particles from an old Soviet-era rocket. It was declared lost by August 2013, having cost the government US $700,000.

A second satellite, Krysaor (, is set to be launched in November 2013. It is intended as a partner to Pegasus and is for educational uses and also to monitor space debris, its website states.

Other trends in the space race include radical changes in how space missions can be funded and the range of players who can do it. Space entrepreneurs who are using their own private wealth to finance space missions and technology development are now driving innovation.

Pioneers in this new frontier include two US-based private companies. SpaceX (, headed by Internet entrepreneur Elon Musk, boasts of having “the world’s first reusable rockets.” Started in 2002, it now employs more than 3,000 people and has an ultimate goal of creating the technological capability for humans to live on other planets.

The way SpaceX offers access to space as a service is also radical. The company website shows how the re-usable rockets work and then offers potential customers a price list and various options for delivering payloads to space (

Another pioneering company is run by the founder of the online shopping service Amazon ( Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin ( seeks to lower the costs of getting humans into space.

Inspired by the revolution in project funding brought about by the Internet, Denmark’s Copenhagen Suborbitals ( is looking to crowd-fund space missions from donations and says it will use the money to launch peaceful-purpose suborbital spacecraft.

“We aim to show the world that human space flight can be different from the usual expensive and government controlled project,” its website says.

How are these companies relevant to countries coping with wide-scale poverty and economic underdevelopment? There are many space technology applications that can aid poor countries. They can improve communications technology and provide more sophisticated communications services. Satellites can monitor weather and agriculture and conduct sophisticated mapping activities. This can help with planning for fast-growing urban areas.

The West African country of Nigeria is running one of Africa’s largest space programmes to boost its effectiveness as an agricultural economy. Nigeria announced its space programme in 2003 and launched its first satellite in 2007 with the Chinese. Unfortunately, this satellite failed and fell out of orbit.

But Nigeria did not give up and now has three satellites in space.

In 2011, President Goodluck Johnathan said the satellites would “substantially reduce the annual expenditure of over $1 billion arising from the use of foreign bandwidth for GSM Communications, cable television, e-commerce and e-government by both public and private users in the country” (allAfrica).

The Nigerian government is using these satellites to help with its planning and monitoring of disaster-prone areas.

Two countries of the global South, India and China, got involved in space programmes early on in the global space race. India started its space programme in the late 1960s and launched its first satellite in 1975. China began its space programme more than 50 years ago but did not launch its first satellite until the early 1970s. Since then, the country has also launched human beings into space.

And their ambitions are rising: both India and China have their sights set on large-scale space voyages, including missions to the planet Mars.

China is now working on a 60-ton space station to orbit around the earth which is planned to be finished by 2020. Ambitiously, the country is also working towards sending human beings to the planet Mars sometime around 2040 to 2060.


1) United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs: The United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) is the United Nations office responsible for promoting international cooperation in the peaceful uses of outer space. UNOOSA serves as the secretariat for the General Assembly’s only committee dealing exclusively with international cooperation in the peaceful uses of outer space: the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS). Website:

2) United Nations Platform for Space-based Information for Disaster Management and Emergency Response – UN-SPIDER: A new United Nations programme, with the following mission statement: “Ensure that all countries and international and regional organizations have access to and develop the capacity to use all types of space-based information to support the full disaster management cycle”. Website:

European Southern Observatory: ESO operates three unique world-class observing sites in the Atacama Desert region of Chile: La Silla, Paranal and Chajnantor. ESO’s first site is at La Silla, a 2400 m high mountain 600 km north of Santiago de Chile. Website:

Space News: For over two decades, SpaceNews has been the only publication that space professionals throughout the world turn to first for the news that affects their jobs.  Whether for the latest trends in military space capabilities, breaking developments in satellite communications, or the current status of a budget, our readers count on SpaceNews to keep them informed. Website:

5) European Space Agency Mars Express: Mars Express, so called because of the rapid and streamlined development time, represents ESA’s first visit to another planet in the Solar System. The spacecraft borrows technology from the failed Mars 96 mission and from ESA’s Rosetta mission that is currently en route to comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. The mission helps to answer fundamental questions about the geology, atmosphere, surface environment, history of water and potential for life on Mars. Website:

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