Dr Spencer Onuh is the director and chief executive of the Centre for Satellite Technology Development (CSTD). In this interview with NKECHI ISAAC, he maintains that Nigeria needs to have a back-up satellite that would promote reliability in services in telecoms sector.
Your primary mandate is the development of satellite payloads for various applications. But the military, an important sector of the nation, has claimed that there was no provision for the military in NigeriaSat 2. Why is this so?
They may be referring to the resolutions. It’s a 2.5 acromatic and 5 metre multi spectra like what we have in N1. The resolution, based on our advancement in space technology as at that time, was what Nigeria needed. Military specifications always defer, they are high-spec because they always have particular specification requirements. That satellite was not manufactured principally for the military but for uses for the Nigerian generality.
However, even the military can use the 2.5 which was included to enhance the resolutions we have over the N1 because it is useful, even to the military. Even though they have their specifications the N2 is obviously not a military satellite. I agree to that but not that it is not useful. The information we have which we normally pass to them have been maximally used for the benefit of the country.
For example, images from the satellite has assisted the military to recover their crashed plane in Mali, and even in Nigeria. So to say that the satellite is not useful is a misconception except that they cannot use it for their special operations because of specifications. I know that when you talk of military satellite as is obtainable in advanced countries, you will be talking about sub 1 metre resolution.
There has been talks that the federal government is winning the war against the Boko Haram insurgents and have captured communities from the sect. Yet, there still seems to be the need for military surveillance to continue. Is it possible to dedicate a satellite to the military?
It is very possible. It is only in Nigeria that the military do not have their own satellite. In other countries where there is serious military operations, like peace keeping operations in which the military is involved, you have dedicated satellites for the military which may be the high-breed type, both for communications and earth observation, because it is targeted towards specific areas of their needs and operations. So it is possible, and if we are asked to develop a military satellite we will work with the military and develop the specification for their operations.
The life span of the NigeriaSat 2 is almost drawing near and your centre has the mandate to design an indigenous satellite by 2018. It is just two years to 2018, what is the update on this mandate?
Our technicians are already meeting on the mission definition, which is the first phase, and after the mission you go to the design phase. We have started planning the mission phase because we have seen that the current government is committed to our assembly integration and test centre (AIT) with all seriousness. So we’re working in a way because the government has made specific commitment that they are going to inject a lump sum of money into the AIT in the 2016 budget. This has never happened before. So we are hopeful that as we meet on the mission definition those places will be ready for us by the time we reach the design phase. Though the time-frame is tight it is still achieveable if the other aspects are completed as expected.
Do we have synthetic apature cameras in Nigeria?
No, we don’t because that is a different type of satellite. It is part of the roadmap for the next phase. The difference between the optical and synthetic apature reader is the passive and active nature.
The active nature of the synthetic apature reader is such that whether it is in a thick cloud or not, it would still give you a clear image, but the optical cloud hinders it and that is what we currently have in Nigeria. But the military needs the dedicated type even though that is not to say that we cannot use it for other applications. We don’t have it yet, but we can develop it because it is part of our roadmap. We can even develop it concurrently with the indigenous satellite if need be because some other countries develop about three satellites concurrently some of which are navigational, metrological and experimental. Others are used for earth observation and communication at the same time because of the benefits that can be got from them.
Since the military require a higher specification satellite, what is your recommendation, especially to the federal government on this issue?
I strongly urge the federal government to consider a military satellite not just for Boko Haram but as a national strategic asset that Nigeria must have because when the military operates well, they would know what they are looking for, what they have to do and the way they need to do it. Only then can we feel safe.
We have a 2030 national space plan and the minister of science and technology, Dr Ogbonnaya Onu, recently told the media that the nation has to get an astronaut to space by 2030. How feasible is this and in your estimation do you think Nigeria can meet that target?
When Nigeria sets out to do a project, they always achieve it because we have the capacity and capabilities. We may not have astronauts now, and not many nations do, but we can leverage on other nations. The minister has travelled widely since he assumed offices and have held several talks. So he’s speaking from an informed perspective. So it is possible. Training an astronaut takes just about four to five years so we can do it. It is very achievable and not an ego trip; if we’re sending an astronaut to space he/she will have a clear-cut mission and tasks which he must relay to the base station while in space.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) recently said that people on earth can live in Lunar by 2030. Is this possible?
Human beings will continue to expand the frontiers of knowledge. The NASA has gone into space exploration and for them to say that it means that they will still have to carry out a number of investigations. If there is any evidence of life in space then they can send a living being into space to experiment it.
I have not, however, read anywhere that there is evidence of life in Mars but this is classified information and when the time comes such information would be made public.
One of your target area is digital communication but you seem to be silent on that aspect. Why is this so?
The communication satellite is a kind of payload for our satellite. We recently spoke about the NIGCOMSAT 2 and NIGCOMSAT 3 and we emphasised that there is a need for Nigeria to have a redundancy in communication satellite. We have the NIGCOMSAT 1R already but if there is no 2 and 3, the patronage will be very low, if at all it is there, because people would want reliability. If there is a problem with the NIGCOMSAT 1R we do have a back-up.
For instance, if you say that the Nigeria Television Authority (NTA) should migrate to your satellite and there is a problem with the satellite in space, the whole programme, or DSTV, would be shut down. But if you have a back-up all you’ll just have to do is to migrate to your second satellite, and it is seamless. Nobody would know what has happened and while you are battling to fix your problem you’ll still be delivering the required standard of service. So, it is key to our development. We have been stressing that we need one or two more telecommunication satellite to effectively break into the market.
When would Nigeria construct and launch its satellite?
Launching of satellite is a technology that is only available to about five countries worldwide and to be able to do that you have to carry out some basic tests which we are currently doing now. But we have one advantage because of our location near the equator for polar and other types launching. Generally launching from Nigeria will be cheaper because it will take you less time to get to the orbit than if you are not near the equator.
So, that’s why a part of the strategic plan of the space policy is that Nigeria would have developed either solely on its own or in collaboration to launch its own satellite by 2030.
We already developing manpower towards that effect. Some of our staff have undergone training on rocketry in the University of Alabama and they have returned. They are currently working on a number of rocketry, especially sound rocketry for now and it is from there that things can develop especially when you bring in other collaborators and partners who have already developed the technology into it.
So, we believe that in the nearest future Nigeria will be able to develop its satellite in Nigeria and also launched from Nigeria sphere. It can be done countries like Japan and South Korea which started their space technology about 20 years ago have launched from their country. It can be done and Nigeria can do it.
The federal government is talking about diversifying the economy, what benefits do we have in space technology?
It is the anchor. If you want to diversify the economy from petroleum to agriculture, that’s the reason for space applications for food security; that’s why we have space application to address issues of deforestation; dissertification. Apart from that, even the issues of types of crops to grow and where to grow them need application of space technology. If you are talking about internally generated revenue through tax collection from land-mapping, town planning and development. Satellite is applicable to every area of our lives and accurate information from them will positively affect the Nigerian economy. Satellite is a strategic national asset and infrastructure that a country needs, not necessarily because of the immediate return on investment but because of the way it affects every other area as a catalyst for growth and development.