Girls to design Africa’s first private space satellite

They are part of a team of high school girls from Cape Town, South Africa, who have designed and built payloads for a satellite that will orbit the earth’s poles exploring the surface of Africa.

Once in space, the satellite will collect information on agriculture and food security on the continent.

Based on the transmitted data, “we can try to determine and predict the problems that Africa will face in the future,” explains Bull, a student at Pelican Park High School.

“Where our food grows, where we can plant more trees and vegetation and also how we can control remote areas,” he says. “We have a lot of wildfires and floods but we don’t always get out in time.”

The information received twice a day will be used for disaster prevention.

It is part of a project by the Meta Economic Development Organization (MEDO) in South Africa working with Morehead State University in the USA.

Ambitious first

The girls (14 in total) are being trained by satellite engineers from the Cape Peninsula University of Technology, with the aim of encouraging more African women into STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics).

If the launch is successful, it will make MEDO the first private company in Africa to build a satellite and send it into orbit.

“We hope to receive a good signal, which will allow us to receive reliable data,” declares an enthusiastic Mngqengkiswa, from Philippi High School. “In South Africa we’ve had some of the worst floods and droughts and it’s really hit farmers hard.”

By 2020, 80% of jobs will be related to STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics), MEDO predicts, but currently only 14% of the STEM workforce globally are women.
Drought and the environmental effects of climate change have continued to affect the country in recent years. An El Niño-induced drought led to a shortfall of 9.3 million tonnes in southern Africa’s maize production in April 2016, according to a UN report.

“It has brought down our economy… This is a way to see how we can boost our economy,” says young Mngqengkiswa.

Inspiring girls

The girls' satellite will have a detailed view of South Africa's drought crisis that led to a shortfall of 9.3 million tonnes in southern Africa's maize production in April 2016

Initial tests involved the girls programming and launching small CricketSat satellites using high-altitude weather balloons, before eventually helping to set up the satellites’ payloads.

Girls learn science defying Boko Haram

Small-format satellites are low-cost ways to quickly collect data about the planet. Tests so far have involved collecting thermal image data which is then interpreted for early flood or drought detection.

“It’s a new field for us [in Africa] but I think with this we could make positive changes in our economy,” says Mngqengkiswa.

The project is ultimately expected to include girls from Namibia, Malawi, Kenya and Rwanda.

Mngqengkiswa comes from a single parent household. His mother is a domestic worker. By becoming a space engineer or astronaut, the teenager hopes to make her mother proud.

“Discovering space and seeing the Earth’s atmosphere, it’s not something that many black Africans have been able to do, or don’t have the opportunity to look at,” says Mngqengkiswa.

The school is right; in half a century of space travel, no black African has traveled to outer space. “I want to see these things for myself,” says Mngqengkiswa, “I want to be able to experience these things.”

Her teammate, Bull, agrees: “I want to show the other girls that we don’t have to sit back or limit ourselves. Any career is possible, even aerospace.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Previous post ‘Julie & Julia’ author Julie Powell dies at her home in New York
Next post Christian Horner: Red Bull not favorite for F1 title