What is happening in the space sector in Ghana?

Africa receives less attention than other regions in discussions of the global space sector. But there is significant activity, as exemplified by the Square Kilometre Array initiative, in which South Africa is the most involved country. Other smaller countries in the region also have space initiatives. One such country is Ghana. To learn more about Ghana’s space sector, we spoke to Joseph Hammond, the managing editor of New Africa Daily. 

What are some of the highlights of Ghana’s space program so far? 

After South Africa, Ghana has perhaps the most advanced satellite dish research program. The Ghana Space Science and Technology Institute (GSSTI) is Ghana’s national space agency and is managed by the Ministry of Environment, Science, Technology, and Innovation. Its history stretches back over a decade. A major facility is the Ghana Satellite Earth Station, which hosts three antennas with diameters of 32 meters, 16 meters, and nine meters.

Ghana’s first satellite, GhanaSat-1, was released from the international space station in 2017 to monitor Ghana’s coastline. The satellite was developed by Ghana’s All Nations University in partnership with Japan’s Kyushu Institute of Technology. The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency played an important role, since a Japanese astronaut was the one to release the satellite from the ISS. The satellite was largely manufactured in Ghana and was completed in two years at a cost of $500,000.

What are plans for its future development?

It’s unclear. In 2017, the African Union announced plans to create a space agency. Ghana was a late bidder to host the facility after bids from Egypt and Namibia. When Namibia withdrew its bid, the African Union announced the agency’s headquarters would be located in Egypt. Ghana was recently made the host of the secretariat for the African Continental Free Trade Area, another new AU organization. To me, places like Kenya, Uganda, Somalia, Gabon, or either of the Congo states might have made more sense since they sit along the equator; they are thus better suited to launching objects to space and are likelier homes for future spaceports. Obviously, Ancient Egyptians were pioneers in astronomy. This was recognized in selecting Egypt. A recent AU report suggests the agency’s plans to launch in 2023 are behind schedule.

I think the “African Space Race” is misconceived as being solely between African countries. An extremely important factor is politics within, not between countries. Ghana’s President Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo, for example, oversaw the launch of Ghana’s radio observatory in 2017. Ghana is scheduled to have an election this year. Former President John Mahama is in the running. If he comes back, will he change priorities in light of Covid-19? I don’t know; I interviewed him previously, but we didn’t discuss space. I expect that if Akufo-Addo gets re-elected, science and research efforts such as these may be scaled back.

How does Ghana’s space program fit into the larger context of African engagement with space?

If you look at the flags of Africa, you find plenty of images of the Moon or the Sun or stars. In fact, Africa has a higher percentage of such symbols on flags than any other continental grouping except Oceania, which makes sense given the history of navigation in that region.

Ghana followed Sudan as one of the first countries to declare independence after World War II. Its flag features a Black Star, a symbol of anticolonialism. Hence it is sometimes referred to as the “Black Star” republic. Ghana has prided itself on its involvement in pan-African causes dating back to the efforts of its independence leader and first head of state Kwame Nkrumah.

In some ways one of the leaders on the continent regarding space is South Africa, which isn’t surprising. The South African National Space Agency was founded in 2010 and is the only space program in Sub-Saharan Africa that currently has an astronaut program. In 2018, Ghana and South Africa jointly converted a Ghanaian communications antenna from a telecommunications device into a functioning Very Long Baseline Interferometry radio telescope. Both are Commonwealth countries and both ones that have traditionally been involved in pan-African affairs, so potential collaboration is quite strong.