James Jeffrey

Ethiopia, phone home: Space observatory sees country’s future in the stars

First such telescope in Ethiopia kick-starts astronomical interest, enabling economy to reap benefits of technology

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — When Eyoas Ergetu was a child, he became interested in space science but couldn’t find anywhere to study it. He went on to become a mechanical engineering graduate student at Addis Ababa University, where he studies. And, now 24, he has managed to find an outlet for his thwarted celestial interests, thanks to Ethiopia’s first space observatory, the Entoto Observatory and Research Center.

“It’s very exciting to be working here,” he said beside one of the observatory’s two 1-meter telescopes, each of which weighs 6 tons and cost about $1.5 million.

The observatory sits atop the Entoto Mountains strewn with eucalyptus forest overlooking the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa. It has already opened its doors to researchers and students, and by the end of January, its two telescopes are expected to be declared fully functional by a panel of scientific inspectors.

At the same time, a feasibility study is well underway for construction of another space observatory at Lalibela, home to Ethiopia’s famous rock-hewn churches.

These observatories will kick-start space science technology in Ethiopia — an important boost to development, those involved say, as the technology has applications in myriad areas in the public and private sectors.

One of the telescopes’ rear circuitry.
James Jeffrey

“Space science technology is often considered a luxury only for developed countries,” said Solomon Belay, Entoto’ director. “But it’s actually a basic and vital need for development.”

He points out how space science technology and research can be applied to many basic necessities of life, such as health and energy and food security, after which come applications in more advanced areas, such as environmental management, urban development and multiple business fields. It could even lead to Ethiopia’s building its own satellites, which is music to the ears of people like Ergetu.

“If Ethiopia is to launch satellites, it will need experts to design. I want to be one of those people,” he said, adding that he plans to start a graduate degree in aerospace engineering to enable him to participate.

The Entoto Observatory sits at more than 10,000 feet; the Lalibela observatory will be even higher, at almost 14,000 feet. Ethiopia’s highland topography and climate, with its thin air and minimal cloud cover most of the year, make it ideal for astronomical observatories.

‘Space technology is often considered a luxury only for developed countries, but it’s actually a basic and vital need for development.’

Solomon Belay

director, Entoto Observatory and Research Center

Construction of the observatory was the result of work initiated by the Ethiopian Space Science Society (ESSS), founded 10 years ago to address the lack of space science activity and interest in Ethiopia.

At the ESSS’s inception, “most Ethiopian politicians were not ready for space science,” said Abinet Ezra, communications director for the ESSS, adding how initially it had to import telescopes from the U.S., until unfavorable foreign exchange rates became prohibitive. Eventually staffers at the ESSS managed to get their message home.

“Ethiopian politicians have recognized the role space science can play in helping Ethiopia’s development and are supporting generating investment in the country’s new observatories and space program,” Ezra said.

Ethiopia is not alone in Africa when it comes to playing catch-up in the realm of space science technology. So far, only a handful of African countries — South Africa, Nigeria, Egypt and Morocco — have fully functioning space programs that have managed to get satellites into space.

“Science development is not easy in Africa,” Belay said. “Science needs political visibility. Otherwise, it is not deemed important enough or allocated a budget.” Too often in the past, he said, the economic strategies of African countries weren’t linked to science and technology, with attention instead given to small-scale agriculture. “But now developing countries are pushing to start space programs.”

The Entoto Observatory seeks to address the fact that currently very little astronomy is taught in sub-Saharan Africa outside South Africa. In September 2014 it started facilitating master’s and doctoral training in astronomy and astrophysics, space science and earth observation.

In 2014 scientists from universities in the U.S., Europe and Africa visited and independently evaluated the quality and standards of the curricula, according to international criteria.

“This is exciting for the region because other African countries have to send people to observatories in South Africa and Europe, but now they will be able to send them here,” said Josef Huber, a systems engineer with German-based Astelco Systems, which built and installed Entoto’s telescopes.

A telescope at the Entoto Observatory and Research Center.
James Jeffrey

There are those, however, who don’t share the enthusiasm. Media criticism has focused on African countries’ embarking on aerospace adventures while much of their populations reside in urban slums and deprived rural villages and receiving millions of dollars in aid from Western countries. 

It’s estimated that nearly 70 percent of people in sub-Saharan Africa live on less than $2 a day; in Ethiopia it’s estimated that 29 percent do. And Ethiopia remains a major recipient of foreign aid.

But defenders of space and astronomy programs argue that such criticism is based on the assumption that national income is a fixed amount and that any portion taken for one activity is at the expense of others. They suggest that developing countries emulate knowledge-based economies and invest in science. Those directly involved in the beginnings of Ethiopia’s space observatory say the application of space science technology and research is critical for the development of Ethiopia and the rest of Africa when it comes to improving basic necessities of life and to less tangible long-term benefits.

“Astronomy gets the young to embrace science and technology, and a space program is an important tool to inspire students to enjoy physics and chemistry,” Belay said. “It’s also good for the image of Ethiopia, which is known by many for only its problems. And locally it will impact and increase people’s science awareness, and that leads to development technology.”

‘This is exciting for the region because other African countries have to send people to observatories in South Africa and Europe, but now they will be able to send them here.’

Josef Huber

systems engineer, Astelco Systems

Although only a handful of African countries have their satellites in space, the impact has been notable. Since 2010 satellite capacity across the continent has nearly tripled — Nigeria has five satellites orbiting the globe — playing a significant part in fueling Africa’s mobile phone revolution, resulting in over 70 percent of Africans owning mobile phones, according to recent reports.

The ESSS is lobbying the Ethiopian government to focus on getting Ethiopian satellites in space within the next decade. In addition, Ghana and Uganda recently established space research programs and are thought to be several years from putting satellites into space.

Satellite technology can help improve telecommunications and the monitoring of activities such as mining and farming and construction of major infrastructure projects like Ethiopia’s Renaissance Millennium Dam, which could revolutionize Ethiopia’s energy needs through hydroelectricity. Ethiopia is currently paying to use foreign-owned satellites for such purposes, Belay pointed out.

Once the Entoto and Lalibela observatories are fully established, they will provide training and research facilities for students at 33 of Ethiopia’s universities, he said, as well as serve to attract international scientists for the same purposes. It is hoped that Ethiopia can one day become the African version of Chile, a global hub for astronomy and research, reaping benefits from research and development as well as space tourism dollars.

There’s clearly still a long way for Ethiopia to go, but that’s part of the reason for the excitement about the journey, where it might lead and the wide-reaching effects it might have.

“Development is not always sustainable,” Belay said, “but if it comes through science and technology, it is sustainable.”

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