Eye­ing the stars: Ethiopia’s space pro­gram to blast off


High above the crowded streets of Ad­dis Ababa, among fields where farm­ers lead oxen drag­ging wooden ploughs, sits Ethiopia's space pro­gram.

Perched on the top of the 3,200-me­ter-high Mount En­toto, two me­tal domes house tele­scopes, each a me­ter in di­am­e­ter.

Op­er­a­tional for only a few months, the spe­cial­ized equip­ment — the first in eastern Africa — has pro­pelled Ethiopia into an elite club of African coun­tries to have em­barked on a space pro­gram.

For Ethiopia, Africa’s sec­ond most pop­u­lous na­tion, the pro­gram is aimed to give it a tech­no­log­i­cal boost to aid the coun­try's al­ready rapid de­vel­op­ment.

“Science is part of any de­vel­op­ment cy­cle — with­out science and tech­nol­ogy noth­ing can be achieved,” said Abi­net Ezra, com­mu­ni­ca­tions di­rec­tor for the Ethiopian Space Science So­ci­ety (ESSS).

“Our main pri­or­ity is to in­spire the young gen­er­a­tion to be in­volved in science and tech­nol­ogy.”

ESSS, funded by Ethiopi­anSaudi busi­ness ty­coon Mo­hammed Alam­oudi, was set up in 2004 to pro­mote as­tron­omy.

‘Peo­ple said we were crazy’

It has a bold mis­sion: "To build a so­ci­ety with a highly de­vel­oped sci­en­tific cul­ture that en­ables Ethiopia to reap the ben­e­fits ac­cru­ing from space science and tech­nol­ogy.”

But its sup­port­ers have had a tough ride to set it up.

For the past decade, a hand­ful of en­thu­si­asts — in­clud­ing Solomon Be­lay, di­rec­tor of the ob­ser­va­tory and a pro­fes­sor of as­tro­physics — bat­tled with the author­i­ties to con­vince them that in a coun­try that is still one of the poor­est in the world, where malnutrition is still a threat, the ex­plo­ration of space is not a lux­ury.

Ethiopia strong­man Me­les Ze­nawi, who died in 2012, con­sid­ered them to be dream­ers.

“Peo­ple said we were crazy,” said Be­lay. “The at­ten­tion of the gov­ern­ment was to se­cure food se­cu­rity, not to start a space and tech­nol­ogy pro­gram. Our idea was con­trary to that.”

The space ob­ser­va­tory is, above all, a sym­bol.

The US$3 mil­lion cen­ter houses com­puter- con­trolled tele­scopes and a spec­tro­graph, to mea­sure wave­lengths of elec­tro­mag­netic ra­di­a­tion.

It al­lows the hand­ful of as­tron­omy and as­tro­physics stu­dents at the Univer­sity of Ad­dis Ababa to train on site, rather than tak­ing ex­pen­sive trips abroad.

“Be­ing poor is not a bound­ary to start this pro­gram,” Solomon said, adding that by boost­ing sup­port for science, it would help de­velop the coun­try.

“En­gi­neer­ing and sciences are im­por­tant to trans­form our (tra­di­tional) agri­cul­ture into in­dus­try.”

Rocket Launch

The site here at En­toto, of­ten hid­den by clouds dur­ing the rainy sea­son and close to the lights of Ad­dis Ababa, strug­gles to com­pete with the world's ma­jor ob­ser­va­to­ries, in­clud­ing the far larger South­ern African Large Te­le­scope in South Africa.

But Ethiopia has plans, in­clud­ing to build a far more pow­er­ful ob­ser­va­tory in the north­ern moun­tains around Lal­i­bela, far from city lights.

With the author­i­ties now won over that Ethiopia should in­vest in space science, the gov­ern­ment hopes to launch a na­tional space agency — and to put an Ethiopian satel­lite in or­bit within five years, for the mon­i­tor­ing of farm­land and to boost com­mu­ni­ca­tions.

"We are us­ing space ap­pli­ca­tions in ev­ery day ac­tiv­i­ties, for mo­bile phones, weather — space ap­pli­ca­tions are fun­da­men­tal," said Ke­lali Adhana, the In­ter­na­tional As­tro­nom­i­cal Union chief for East Africa, based in Ethiopia. “We can­not post­pone it, oth­er­wise we al­low our­selves to live in poverty.”

At Ethiopia’s In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy in the north­ern town of Mekelle, sci­en­tists plan to test the first Ethiopian rocket to go more than 30 kilo­me­ters into sky, although that it still far from the 100-kilo­me­ter fron­tier, be­yond which the Earth’s at­mos­phere gives way to space proper.

Ethiopian astro­nauts how­ever, re­main far off — even if in a coun­try that lays claim to be the birthplace of hu­mankind, with the re­mains of the an­cient ho­minid Lucy in Ad­dis Ababa, the prospect of con­quer­ing space is an at­trac­tive one. “We are in no hurry to go to deep space,” said Be­lay.

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