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Nigerian Satellites: The way to go!(1)

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By Prof. Dike N. Kalu

One should be rightly puzzled that I would venture to write about the country’s  satellite program at this time of national crisis with Nigeria having to deal with Boko Haram, infiltration of the administration by fundamentalist groups, unprecedented lack of personal security, untold hardships caused by the abrupt withdrawal of fuel subsidy in the background of endemic corruption and the continuing lack of essential development of the country.

That one could write on subjects other than the challenges indicates some sort of confidence that the government will listen to protestations of well-meaning Nigerians that those who have undertaken to lead us will desist from political rhetoric and rather lead by doing what is necessary to move the nation forward.

That one can write about Nigerian satellites at this time is also an acknowledgment of the fact that the building of the nation should not be left just to the government but that every Nigerian has a responsibility to contribute. The following discussion is in line with my commitment to make the Nigerian public my student body at retirement.

A student was all happy and bubbly when she encountered Professor Dike who then had the following brief conversation with her.

Professor: You seem awfully happy. You must have made a good grade in the last exam.

Student: Prof, it’s the Nigerian satellites. I just heard that Nigeria successfully launched two satellites into orbit.

Professor: Really; new ones?

Student: Back in August.

Professor: But that’s old news.

Student: Yes, it is. I wonder why I missed the news in August. I thought I was following Nigeria’s space adventure pretty well. In fact, some years ago, I was all excited when reports that Nigerian engineers independently launched rockets from LASU, Lagos caused a great deal of controversy as to whether or not Nigeria really did accomplish such a feat. Prof, what was launched in August, rockets or satellites, and, this time, is the report true?

Professor: The report I read in August said that two satellites, not rockets, were launched into orbit by Nigerian engineers. The president even gave a news conference about it; so it should be true.
I am afraid I am on my way to a meeting that starts in a few minutes. Maybe we could continue this discussion some other time.

Student: Prof, I am sure many other students will be honored to take part in this discussion on satellites. If you don’t mind, may I arrange for us to meet with you in a day or two?

Professor: That’s okay by me. Just make it soon as I currently have a fairly flexible schedule. The student then trotted towards one of the classroom blocks to mobilize some other students who in turn recruited their friends by means of the social media. The following day the auditorium was filled with students from every level.

Apparently the news of the professor’s informal talk had spread like wild fire throughout the campus. Because this meeting was held at the week-end there were no conflicts with regular lectures and even some instructors and professors attended. There were so many students that the informal discussion which had been scheduled in a small lecture hall had to be moved to a large auditorium.

Student #1: Thank you all for coming at such short notice. I am really embarrassed by this large turnout as this was not supposed to be a formal lecture by the professor who, at my request, graciously agreed to continue with an informal discussion on Nigerian satellites that we started yesterday. I have no prepared introduction, no nothing! So, Prof., maybe you should just take over as I don’t really know how to handle this.
The professor just smiled and moved to the podium.

Professor: Thank you, Ms. Nneji. I must confess that this is the best introduction I’ve had in my entire professional career. I am just as embarrassed as you are by this large turnout but I’ll like to reassure everyone here that this meeting will remain an informal discussion that was provoked by the recent launching of satellites by Nigeria. As I said yesterday during my discussion with Nneji, I read recently that Nigeria launched two satellites and not rockets into orbit around our planet.

Student #1 (Ms. Nneji): Prof, what’s the difference between a rocket and a satellite?
Professor: Both rockets and satellites are spacecrafts. They are fairly simple conceptually though complex in practice; but I’ll try to explain the basics of each simply and briefly, starting with rockets.

Although the principles of rocketry have been applied to many different contraptions over centuries, in the interest of time, I will limit my comments to the modern use of rockets in space travel. A rocket is basically a spacecraft or vessel that can move forward when a high speed exhaust produced exclusively from a burning fuel or propellant in a rear or bottom compartment within the vessel produces a high speed thrust that moves the vessel forward. The burning propellant is visible to the naked eye as flame in the rear of the rocket.

According to a popular notion, the high speed exhaust from the burning propellant moves the vessel forward in the opposite direction just as is predicted by Newton’s third law of motion which states that for every action there is an opposite and equal reaction.

Some have, however, argued that the primary reason for the forward movement is that the burning fuel creates a huge but unbalanced pressure inside the vessel and that it is the tremendous unbalanced pressure against the upper inner surface of the chamber that propels the rocket forward at very high speed.

Unlike a rocket, a satellite is a body that is placed in orbit by humans. It is important to note that a satellite does not need its own fuel/engine to get into orbit. A rocket is usually designed to serve as a vessel that carries a satellite on its back or in its bay to its required orbit in space.

Once in orbit, the earth’s gravitational pull on the satellite is balanced by the satellite’s inertia, and the latter no longer needs the rocket and its propellant/fuel. At this point the rocket is jettisoned from the satellite.

This does not mean that satellites do not require energy or power. A satellite needs energy to perform the various duties that are assigned to it. Satellites can generate electrical energy using solar cells and the sun as a battery charger. Some satellites rely on fuel cells or batteries or even nuclear sources for their energy.

Student #2: Does a rocket differ from a satellite in any other way?
Yes, another important difference between the two is that, unlike a rocket, a satellite moves around another object in its orbit in space. For instance, the earth is a satellite since it moves around the sun, and the moon is also a satellite since it moves around the earth. Most other planets have their own moons. The earth and the moon are sometimes called natural satellites to distinguish them from artificial satellites which are man-made and launched in orbit by human beings.

The first artificial satellite is Sputnik 1 which the Soviet Union launched into an orbit around our planet on October 4, 1957. Although the Sputnik lasted only about three months before it dropped out of its orbit and burned in the earth’s atmosphere, its successful launching was a remarkable achievement as it ushered in the current space age.

Since 1957 thousands of man-made satellites and some “shuttles” have been put in orbit around the earth by various countries. Only a few of these are operational while the rest are essentially junks polluting space. These space junks consist mainly of unusable satellites, satellite fragments and rocket fragments.

Students #3: What are shuttles?
Professor: Space shuttles are not  satellites. The official name the US gave the space shuttle is Space Transportation System (STS) and the STS program lasted from 1981 to 2011. The space shuttle was conceived as a spacecraft that could carry humans to and from space.

The US planned to make the space shuttle at least a partially reusable spacecraft because spacecrafts are expensive to build. That is, with the shuttle, the same spacecraft could be refurbished and reused after its return to earth from its mission in space thereby reducing the cost of building a new one from the scratch.

The US built five fully functional orbiters (actually components of shuttles, see below). One exploded in 1986 during take-off and another broke up during re-entry from space in 2003. In both of these unfortunate accidents, all the crew members were killed. The remaining three flew several missions, and the shuttle program was terminated in July 2011.

The shuttle consists of three main parts: the orbiter, a large fuel tank and two solid booster rockets. The boosters provided most of the energy for the shuttle’s lift-off and were discarded after the first two minutes of flight. The large fuel tank which provided fuel for the main vessel was discarded when the orbiter entered orbit; the large fuel tank then burned up in the earth’s atmosphere. The orbiter was the part of the shuttle that carried the crew and the shuttle’s payload. Because it was the only part of the shuttle that entered orbit, some mistakenly regarded the orbiter as the shuttle.

So, like a satellite, a shuttle was launched into orbit by a conventional rocket. Part of the shuttle, the orbiter stayed in space like a satellite, and when it finished its task the orbiter exited its orbit, re-entered the earth’s atmosphere and proceeded to and landed on earth like an airplane. The solid boosters and the orbiter were then refurbished and reused for another space flight.

Shuttles were used to place as tronauts and equipment like the Hubble telescope in space, and they carried various payloads to various orbits. However, most of the functions of shuttles were tied to the building of the International Space Station (ISS).

I think it is important for you as students to realize that the space story is one of a remarkable achievement. You should also note that the industrialized world saw space as an unexplored frontier with potentials they could hardly fully foresee, and yet they embarked on doing what they could to conquer it.

They did this by mobilizing their country’s best resources in academia, politics and society.  And those entrusted with the responsibility of spending the millions and sometimes billions of dollars required to execute the space program used the money for what it was intended.

Everybody including you has some talent. If you don’t know yet what yours is, this is when to find out, and please plan on using it. Since the students of today will become the leaders of tomorrow, always remember that real progress requires hard work and dedication and the giving of your best for the benefit of your country’s development even if it means making the ultimate sacrifice like the astronauts that died in the shuttle’s fantastic ventures into space.

Professor: Let’s return to satellites.

Although, satellites perform many important functions, they do not carry humans and, as a result their usefulness in space is restricted mainly to what they are programmed to do before they are sent to space. Industrialized nations realized early that in order to conquer space, what they really needed is a space station where they could have manned laboratories to perform frontier research in many fields that are addressed by satellites including space weather, human biology, medicine, physics, astronomy and meteorology.

Furthermore, if space is to be colonized as industrialized nations hoped to, they needed to know the long-term effects of space exposure on the human body. As a result of the burden of tremendous expense and expertise involved in the quest to understand and conquer space, national space agencies of America, Russia, Japan and Canada combined to form what eventually became the International Space Station (ISS) in order to share the burden.

The ISS is essentially a complex, well-equipped, futuristic, orbiting laboratory with living quarters for up to seven astronauts at a time in addition to experimental quarters. At completion, it will be larger than a five-bedroom house. It will weigh almost 1 million pounds or the equivalent of more than 320 automobiles and it will measure 357 feet end to end or slightly larger than full-sized soccer field. Because the ISS is so huge and complex, an important function of the shuttle became the ferrying of humans and materials to complete the construction, assembly and the equipment of the ISS.


Another important reason for this joint global space effort had to do with national security. Space exploration began during the cold war when nations were obsessed with military might and superiority over others. Industrialized nations were suspicious of one another and feared that if any one nation built an ISS, it could use it militarily to dominate the others. They reasoned that a joint effort would make this less likely.

Student #5: Now that America has retired her last space shuttle, does it mean that the ISS is completely assembled? If not, without a shuttle, how will American astronauts and the international community get to the ISS in the future?

Professor: The ISS is currently habitable and there has always been an astronaut working there in the last ten years. But its fabrication is not yet complete and humans and cargo continue to be ferried there. Only the Russians now have the spacecraft that can take astronauts to the ISS.

Although this is disconcerting to some, the Americans and the international community now depend on Russia to ferry humans and cargo to the ISS that was initiated by Americans. The American administration believes that eventually suborbital tourism by private for-profit companies, which are now evolving in the US, will become so common that for a fee they would transport their astronauts and cargo to space.

Meanwhile, with their space shuttles now grounded, Americans have started the era of going to space by hitching rides with Russian astronauts. In fact, last November 2011, after the termination of American shuttle program, a Russian Soyuz air craft ferried an American astronaut and two Russians to the ISS. Another joint flight to the ISS by Russia and America is scheduled for March 2012.

Student #6: With the retirement of the shuttle, what will become of American space program and NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration of America)?

Professor: That’s a question that also worries many Americans interested in space and its implications. In anticipation of this question, the American president addressed the issue in Kennedy Space Center, Florida three months before the space shuttle made its final flight.

President Obama assured Americans that the exploration of space by NASA will continue when the shuttle program ends in a couple of months. He said that future space program was necessary to continue to increase our knowledge about the world and its climate in order to protect the environment for future generations. The shuttle program, he assured, was stopped in part to enable America to prepare for the next stage of space exploration into deep space to the moon and as far as to Mars.

In this new phase of the space program, destination would no longer be the main object. But the new space program would now include doing what is necessary to enable people to live and work safely beyond the earth for as long as possible. The president challenged NASA to quickly make the breakthroughs in advanced technologies that will facilitate the new phase of space travel and make eventual travel to Mars safe and affordable. Since he also promised to give them the necessary resources, the American space program and NASA live on.

Why am I telling you all these?  I am telling you because I believe that, as students, you should be aware of what is going on around you. The people in the forefront of the space program today are industrialized nations that have met their basic needs of food, water and shelter. Nigeria has not. It seems to me that we as a nation have so much to do here on earth to improve the lot of our people.

We have all the basic ingredients for an exciting and successful future – people, natural resources, and a nation full of great challenges. We are still at a stage in our development when we do not need to be geniuses to know what we need such as reducing the high level of illiteracy in our midst, building motorable roads, providing an environment that will facilitate the production of food, water, good sanitation, shelter, education and jobs.

The greatest threat to any society is to have a large pool of idle, young people who do not have anything positive or challenging to occupy their attention especially when they themselves know that there must be something worthwhile they could be doing.  Events in our country are daily reminders that a mind that is not meaningfully occupied has a way of drifting towards something that is unsavory. So I implore you again to seek what your talent is and utilize it for the benefit of your country and humanity.

I digress. Let’s come back to the launching of Nigerian satellites which was the catalyst for this discussion.

Student #4: Could you please tell me what type of satellite Nigeria launched in August and why some people were so excited about the launching?

Professor: Nigeria was reported to have launched into orbit two satellites named NigeriaSat-2 and NigeriaSat-X in August 2011. To keep it simple, I’ll  paraphrase what was attributed to the president of Nigeria during his news conference on the launching. According to him, both satellites were designed and built by Nigerian engineers/scientists in Britain in conjunction with British scientists and they were launched into orbit in southern Russia aboard a Russian rocket.

The progress of the satellites is being monitored from control stations in Guildford, United Kingdom and in Abuja, Nigeria. NigeriaSat-X was said to be designed and built exclusively by a team of Nigerian engineers and scientists as an experimental satellite.

The president was exuberant about the successful launch of the satellites and congratulated the Nigerians who made it possible. He said the satellites would boost Nigeria’s capacity to deliver internet services, provide information that will be useful in weather forecasting, natural disasters like floods, crop monitoring and urban planning.

It was exciting to see the first very high resolution picture produced by the Nigerian satellites although it would have been even more exciting if that first picture was a Nigerian airport or landmark and not an airport at Salt Lake City, USA.

Besides the president, some other people were rightly excited about the Nigerian satellite launch because of the numerous ways that a country can use satellites to improve the lots of its people. In fact, there is hardly any facet of human existence that cannot benefit from a judicious use of satellites.

Satellites are used to improve communication both nationally and internationally, for instance, through mobile or cell phones, and satellite TVs can operate even in obscure parts of any country. Satellites can also be used in searching and rescuing distressed aircraft, ships and individuals in remote and dangerous places.

While a satellite cannot give you an ideal weather, satellite technology can assist you in telling and predicting the weather in any part of the world as is evident on television every day. They assist humans to make predictions of disaster such as dangerous storms, flooding and tsunamis so that corrective measures can be taken before they occur.

Satellites have unlimited capacity to view the entire globe and take pictures of any nook and cranny of the earth. So satellites can give you information on the earth’s resources, environmental issues such as landslides, mudslides, gullies, oil pollution, or just the topography of the land, and they can even give you a good idea of population densities by determining the fraction of a region that is inhabited.

Satellites are also used for educational purposes and for continuing the study of the universe. Scientific satellites such as the Hubble telescope carry out scientific missions. Satellites have become indispensable for military purposes and are used for intelligence gathering and reconnaissance. Although their military role is understandably guarded in secrecy, it does not seem to be waning but, luckily, as you have seen, it is no longer the only use of satellites.

In short, the functions of satellites are only limited by the degree of sophistication of one’s imagination. I think it is easy to see why the president and the interested public are excited about the successful launching of a Nigerian satellite. I will however emphasize that since no one satellite can accomplish all the different functions of satellites, a satellite is usually built with a special function in mind, making it a very expensive venture.

One of the lessons to learn from this discussion on satellites, which is really a recent technology, is that a technological advancement is not necessarily an end but rather can become a tool for addressing old or new problems.

For instance, because of the perceived usefulness of the then nascent telephone in the fifties, advanced nations agonized about how telephone signals could be relayed cross the Atlantic Ocean as it was near impossible to lay cables or string overhead wires across the vast ocean to carry telephone signals as is usual for conventional telephones across land masses.

But after the Russians launched the first artificial satellite into orbit around the earth in 1957, industrialized nations applied the new technological development to address their age-old problem of transatlantic telephone communication.

So the successful launch of the Russian Sputnik encouraged the Americans to experiment on routing telephone signals first to an orbiting satellite which then relayed the signal back to the earth to telephone masts across the Atlantic Ocean. By 1960, the American telephone giant, AT&T had applied to the US government for permission to launch the first experimental communications satellite.  This is a good example of the use of new technology to solve an old problem; this is a staple in science.

Another example of the use of new technology to solve old problems is the development of navigation satellites.  Industrialized nations had for a long time struggled with the fact that the navigation of ships was compounded by the fact that there was no easy way to determine the exact position of vessels that were in the ocean out of sight of land.

However it occurred to John Hopkins University scientists monitoring the Russian Sputnik that satellites could be used to decipher the position of a vehicle anywhere at any time.  Their calculations and work in this area led to the development of a technology that is now used to locate exactly where ships are at sea or the ocean.

Now there are about 26 satellites in orbit dedicated to this effort, and it’s this navigation technology that led to the development of global positioning system (GPS) which is now installed in every late model car in industrialized nations. GPS utilizes satellites to assist you to drive to any location known or unknown simply by plugging in your address and that of your destination in a device.

Unfortunately, satellites are very expensive. The cost varies depending on the size, the materials used to build it, its payload or what it’s carrying and the job it is supposed to accomplish. However, no matter the type, satellites cost hundreds of millions of dollars to design, construct, launch and monitor and maintain after they are launched. Commercial satellites are even more expensive and their cost can run into billions of dollars.

Student #4: From what you’ve said it sounds like every country will profit from the use of satellites; but at the same time it seems that not every country can afford them because of their great expense. My question is, is it possible for a country that cannot afford to build and launch its own satellite to get the information it requires simply by using other peoples’ satellite for a fee?

Professor: That’s a good question and one that many people struggle with. One journalist expressed essentially the same sentiment a little differently. He noted that many developing countries are building similar expensive environmental satellites that have the capability of taking pictures of any part of the earth.

He wondered if it was prudent for countries that appear to have more urgent problems like feeding their people to engage in building expensive satellites. According to him, the problem becomes even more worrisome when one considers that free satellite data are available from the United States and Europe.

Before going further with the journalist’s dilemma, let me first disabuse you of the notion of free data. If something is absolutely free, you should examine the circumstances very carefully to see if it is really free and if it really meets your needs.

Secondly, you should consider the fact that the cost of the free satellite data may be so exorbitant that building your own satellite may turn out in the long run to be cheaper especially when you consider that the source of the apparently free data could be withdrawn at a moment’s notice.

However, if you focus only on just the cost you’ll miss the point because developing countries will then always remain consumers waiting for the innovations of others. Developing countries, by having their own satellites, will be putting themselves in a position where they could one day become the experts in addressing problems that are peculiar to their region through the use of satellite technology.

Finally it has been suggested that developing countries may be trying to build their own satellites in order to help promote their national self confidence and to develop their countries’ space scientists and engineers and thereby generate indigenous role models for their children.

Student #5:  I noticed that the Nigerian satellites were actually built in Britain and launched in Russia. Can these satellites really be characterized as the product of indigenous effort by our scientists and engineers?

Professor: In answer to your question, you might like to know that it’s not unusual to have an advanced country make and launch the satellites of other countries especially those of developing countries in the beginning of their space adventure. I hope you will agree that it is not necessary to expect developing countries to go through the trial and error that advanced nations had to go through to develop satellites.

Yes, the Nigeria’s spacecrafts were built in Britain and launched into orbit from a launch pad in Yansy, Russia. The lamentation by some that Nigeria’s satellite efforts were therefore foreign based is misplaced because this is actually how it should be at this stage of our development. In fact, the launching of the earth’s numerous satellites is by only 10 countries. On the day that Nigeria’s satellites were launched, Russia also lunched satellites for six other countries.

However, every country should consider several issues before embarking on building and launching satellites. One of these issues is of course cost. We already saw that a satellite program is very expensive and could cost millions of dollars if everything went well.

The price tag could run into billions if something went wrong like damage to the vessel, the payload does not function properly or something goes wrong with the launching. The case becomes more complicated if the developing country is one in which the rulers seem to be more interested in their personal welfare than in the welfare of the nation and do not apply public money for what it is designated for.

All along, we’ve been buying the products of technology: electricity, cars, trains, airplanes, medical technology, communication technology, and now space technology. Initially it’s okay to buy technology if you can afford to do so. But you must also position yourself to be a producer of technology. That’s why we must invest in our schools and in today’s children.

It is not enough for your engineers to learn and be able to operate other people’s technology. Anyone can do that. What is more important is to have an environment where your people can make original contributions to the pool of world science and technology. Industrialized nations know and practice this all the time.

For instance, the launching of the Sputnik in orbit in 1957 motivated progressive governments to promote science in all their schools. In the US, science home-work increased in schools and children’s interest in science was promoted and encouraged because industrialized nations could see the potentials inherent in putting a satellite in orbit. Some countries even recruited engineers from other countries to teach them how to make better engines for space travel and, at the appropriate time, they sent them back home. Self reliance was seen as a must.

Not too long ago, the computer was born. American legislators quickly realized its potential and so their government mandated the electrical wiring of all elementary schools so that computers could become accessible to everyone starting from school children.

They did not let computers become a status symbol. Rather they realized that it is in the long term interest of their nation that everyone is computer literate and can be a participant in the technological advances taking place in the world stage. Those who are privileged to make this possible in Nigeria have a moral obligation to do so.

I am not implying that developing countries should compete with the industrialized world in the development of technology; far from it. What I am suggesting is that we position ourselves in a state to be able to utilize and apply advances in technology. If you are not scientifically equipped, you cannot fully appreciate technology which is the outcome of science just as the latter is the seed-corn of technology. No country can fully appreciate technology without encouraging science.

So, a fundamental question a technological advocate should ask is, How is science in your elementary schools, high schools, and universities? If the answer is “not good”, you are obligated to do all you can to reverse that answer because we are now in a technological world.

You, as the leaders of tomorrow, should be always aware that a solid foundation in science should begin in elementary and high schools if we are to become intelligent consumers of and the desired contributors to world technology.

The sorry state of science in our schools today should be viewed as a national disgrace and an emergency. Go tell that to your legislators.

* Dike N Kalu, Professor Emeritus, UTHSCSA.

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