West Africa Rising: Nigeria sends two new satellites into space

Satellites launched by Nigeria will map the unplanned urban growth of the commercial capital, Lagos, and track the increasing oil spills in Nigeria's south as well as the desertification of its north.

By , Correspondent

West Africa Rising is a weekly look at business, investment, and development trends.

Five hundred miles into the cold universe, at the cusp of sky, two satellites tumble into orbit, guided by the background light of stars – a remarkable sight, no doubt.

What's more remarkable still is the country that rocketed them up there: Nigeria.

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Earth's least likely space-going nation reached further into the stars last week, when Nigeria shot its third and fourth satellites into orbit, including the first satellite built by Africans.

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From their exospheric perch, the two will map one of humanity's final frontiers: Lagos. The vast megalopolis, home to between nine and 17 million people, is a constantly-shifting phenomenon in urban non-planning.

“These cities are growing very rapidly,” says Ylva Sandring, spokeswoman for England's Surrey Satellite Technology, which built one of the two satellites. “One of the ways these satellites can be used is for mapping the area and looking at that growth.”

Behold the Nigerian space program, an improbable endeavor that once cherished the dream of shipping a Nigerian into orbit by 2015.

“I don't think that one is actually feasible,” says Umar Isah, an engineer with Nigerian Communications Satellite, a public-private partnership with the Nigerian government.

Instead, the agency's focus has swiveled from the promise of space back toward problems on earth – of which Nigeria has plenty.

The nation's desert is widening, its waterholes withering. These two new satellites will keep tabs on that loss of farmland.

Farther south, where crops should flourish, the country has struggled to kickstart large-scale agriculture – but infrared photographs of the nation's fields will offer farmers satellite data on where to smear fertilizer, and allow scientists to forecast each season's upcoming crop.

Then there's Nigeria's recurrent disasters: oil spills and urban flooding.

Already, Nigeria has become something of a leading nation in the field of disaster photography. One of its satellites snapped the much-needed first picture of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. The same satellite beamed down photos of the 2004 tsunami and March's earthquake in Japan to aid agencies.

“They're able to focus in on specific areas and look at damage to roads,” Surrey's Head of Business Development Steve Young said. The information is vital to organizations like the Red Cross.

“The fact that we have so many issues, so many problems, cannot stop us from going into space,” Isah said. “Space is just another way of dealing with those problems.”

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