Star Gazing in Ethiopia: Could Space Science Propel Development?

The first space observatory in East Africa opened last year in Ethiopia, launching new educational opportunities for local students and scientists. But could a space programme benefit a country grappling with issues such as food security and drought?

Author Anna Rees, 04.25.16

The first space observatory in East Africa opened last year in Ethiopia, launching new educational opportunities for local students and scientists. But could a space programme benefit a country grappling with issues such as food security and drought?

An initiative of the Ethiopian Space Science Society (ESSS), the Entoto Observatory and Research Centre is perched atop Mount Entoto, near Addis Ababa and houses two telescopes and a spectrograph that measures wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation. To help bring the observatory to life, the ESSS relied on private donations and the project will no doubt be a useful tool for science education.

It is, however, not without its critics particularly given that pouring millions into a space observatory in a country that is facing its worst drought in 50 years (which, in turn, is leaving 10 million people to rely on food aid) might, on the surface, seem like money ill spent. But there are bigger plans in the works and the team behind the observatory is thinking long-term namely, to use science and technology to support Ethiopia’s development. The observatory would enable the country to launch its own satellites, a goal which it and the Ethiopian Institute of Technology look to achieve within the next five years. The satellites would then be used to monitor agricultural conditions, with data gathered used to assist farmers.

© Entoto Observatory and Research Centre Telescope at the Entoto Observatory and Research Centre

The observatory also looks to make communications technologies more affordable. Currently, Ethiopia’s communications network runs via satellites that are rented from other countries for high sums. Having its own satellites in orbit would cut out the need to rent and would mean lower fees for services like mobile technology and internet, both of which are becoming increasingly important tools for the delivery of healthcare and education in developing areas. As Al Jazeera points out, expansion of space technology in Africa has helped triple the continent’s satellite capacity in the last six years, which in turn has been a key driving force in mobile phone adoption rates.

Not only that, space and satellite technology is used in a number of ways to aid sustainable development such as conflict monitoring, disease tracking and deforestation surveillance. To learn more about satellite technology being used for good, take a look at our RESET Special: Drones and Satellites for Good.

The observatory and the ESSS also make it possible for students to study astronomy and astrophysics in their home country. Previously, candidates looking to study these fields were required to go overseas to do so, which is an expensive undertaking and also meant that knowledge and know-how that could be used locally was being sent out of the country. On a more general level, the team at ESSS hopes that it can use the observatory to engage students in science and help cultivate innovation.

With the observatory still in its infancy, it is too early to assess its impact. While space science and technology may not solve Ethiopia’s most critical issues in the short term, it could be used to help support long-term sustainable development goals and the team at the ESSS hopes to use it to demonstrate the value in investing in science development and education.

The ESSS is currently looking at the possibility of building a second, more powerful observatory in Lalibela, located north of Addis Ababa. Head to the observatory’s website to learn more.

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