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L.Ngcofe1, K. Gottschalk2, S.Madlanga3

1Department of Rural Development and Land Reform, Chief Directorate: National

  Geo-Spatial Information, Mowbray.

2 Department of Political Studies, University of the Western Cape, Cape Town

3 National Research Foundation: Hartebeesthoek Radio Astronomy Observatory 



The costs of Africa being a late starter in space include the exponentially accumulating space debris. This threat to space assets is worse in low earth orbit (LEO), where it has already destroyed an Irridium operational US comsat.

The current discussions in international forums about mitigating the creation of new space debris, has not yet gone to the next stage to discuss financial liability for collisions caused by such debris. Late starters in space need to table the responsibility of the historic space powers to seek ways to remove their cumulative debris from orbit, and finance this.


The ability to observe the Earth from space has enhanced accurate-up-to-date environmental monitoring, thus overcoming some of the environmental challenges experienced by humankind. Investment in space activities has endless, long term, benefits including diplomatic relations; technological advancement through collaboration with other countries; improving overall economic activities in the global arena, which in turn vastly contributes towards addressing social ills. Acknowledging this Chung et al., (2010)  argues that where ground based systems are limited in frequency, continuity and coverage of important ecosystems, satellites can provide essential earth observation data on a continuous basis and over  a range of scales, from local, regional, to global. Access to and the development of space technology has historically been a key determinant of a country’s wealth, power, influence, status and prestige. However, space exploration has been an issue of marginal political interest in Africa, thus leading the continent to be the late starter in space matters. Sharpe (2010) shows Africa as the least active continent with regards to space exploration activities. Aganaba-Jeanty (2013) cites a lack of consistent funding as the greatest barrier of the African space technology development. He argues that according to 2009 to 2012 the countries within Africa represent the lowest spending countries in space exploration when compared to developed and developing countries. Africa as a late starter in space might be seen through Abiodun (2012) words of wisdom starting that “the quality and character of a man’s perceptions as well as his subsequent responses are determined in part by limitations imposed by or opportunities available in his environment. If he is to manifest any real growth and reach his higher potentials, his creativity would need nourishment from his environment”. Currently there are recent strides documented in literature showing Africa’s growing interest and participation in space exploration (Ngcofe et al., 2013; Abiodun, 2012; Wood & Wiegel, 2012; Gottschalk, 2010; Martinez, 2008; Mostert, 2008). It is of this view that this paper attempts to examine the impact of being a late starter on space exploration, particularly looking at the issue of space debris and its potential impact on Africa as a developing space fearing nation. 


Space debris

The current major threat of space exploration is the risk pertaining to space debris relative to the cost of launching satellites in space. The need to justify expenditure on space-related endeavours competes with other pressing expenditure needs such as provision of food, clean drinking water, housing, electricity, roads infrastructure and other commercial development. Space debris also known as orbital debris, or space junk, or space waste, is the collection of man-made objects that have exceeded its service life and broken down while in orbit around the earth (Interagency Report on Orbital Debris 2005; UN, 1999; Sénéchal, 2007; Colliot, 2002; Glassman, 2009; Griffiths, 2010). These include everything from spent rocket stages, old satellites, and fragments from disintegration erosion and collision. Space debris has vastly increased since the beginning of space travel in 1957 thus leading to orbit congestion (Colliot, 2012; Figure 2). According to NASA (2013), there are 500 000 pieces of debris tracked in orbit on Earth.

Figure 1: Showing satellite and debris in Low Earth Orbit from 1960 to 2010 (NASA 2013). 

Collision at orbital velocity can be extremely dangerous to functioning satellites and space manned missions. Sénéchal (2007) argues that at orbital velocity of more than 28000 km/h, an object as small as 1 cm in diameter has enough kinetic energy to produce significant impact damage, to partially or completely destruct an operational satellite. While an object of 1mm size can cause surface pitting and erosion, with larger objects of about 10 cm totally destroying operational satellites, and may even kill space explorers. According to the Kessler Syndrome space debris model, as the number of debris object increases, collisions become more likely to occur thus creating yet more debris (Griffiths, 2010; Colliot, 2012; Durrieu & Nelson, 2013). This is an immense concern, which threatens safety of future space explorations. Though space is a large environment, satellites are actually concentrated in a few orbits that are currently optimal, namely:

  • Low Earth Orbit (LEO) – this is the altitude from 160 km to 2000 km above the earth’s surface. LEO is largely used for earth monitoring, military surveillance, and communication satellites, especially around 350 km.
  • Medium Earth Orbit (MEO) – this is an area from 2000 km to 35 000 km and is mainly used by navigation satellites such as global position system (GPS) networks at around 20 000 km.
  • Geostationary Orbit (GEO) – this is the belt at 36 000 km and is optimal for communication satellites. However, Griffiths (2010) argues that it is more expensive to launch satellites to this orbit. Hence, many communication satellites are placed at LEO.
  • High Earth Orbit (HEO) – This is the area above 36 000 km, and used almost only by satellites researching the magnetosphere or other solar-terrestrial physics.

LEO is regarded as the major used space orbit environment and therefore has a larger record of space debris than any other orbit. There has been four accidental collision events up-to-date (Durrieu and Nelson 2003), with a recent collision incident occurring in 2009 where a United States communication satellite collided with a defunct Russian satellite (Glassman, 2009; Griffiths, 2010; Smitham, 2010). These satellites collided at a speed of over 40 000 km/h, causing complete destruction of both satellites. Thus resulting in around 1400 recorded debris objects (Glassman, 2009; Griffiths, 2010; Smitham, 2010). The available computer models based on observation of debris used to predict future growth of the debris population and probability of collision with satellites under different assumptions reveal that in the next 40 years, collisions with objects larger than 10 cm in LEO are expected to occur on average every 5 years (Griffiths, 2010). This statistics coincide with Sénéchal (2007); Williamson (2003); Liou and Johnson (1996) who argued that in LEO the spatial density of objects is above critical point and the continuation of debris in this orbit may render it inaccessible in the future.



Space availability

The vulnerability of space asserts interference and disruption, led to the view, held by the USA security space community, that space is a contested domain. Whoever seizes space has a powerful advantage both for social and economic enhancement together with military applications (Sadeh, 2009). Space asserts provide a persistent view of the earth and offer ability of real or near real time global collection and dissemination of crucial information. Although, recently, there have been vast strides by Africa within the space arena, the continent still lags behind in space matters. Out of 53 countries in Africa, only four countries (Algeria, Egypt, Nigeria and South Africa) have successfully participated in space activities, through the development of their own space agencies which led to launching of their own satellites in space. The development of micro satellite technology and multiple constellations is now making space technology more affordable for developing countries to utilise the space environment (Durrieu & Nelson, 2013). Thus debate about the African Space Agency, which will cater for participation in space activities for Africa’s needs, is gaining momentum. Currently, Africa has an inspiring mission to the moon ( With the vast interest in space activities by the African continent, one wonders, is there still space in space? Rex (1998) on his paper seeking to answer ‘will space run out of space’. He argues that there would be no major risk for space endeavours from current operational satellites only if it were not for space debris. The issue of space availability in space has been, and is still a major area of concern, more especially for Africa. Since the initial space exploration, the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (UNCOPOUS) was established in 1959 in order to safeguard the use of space and promote space sustainability. This resulted in five UN treaties on Outer Space ( namely:

  1. Outer Space Treaty (1967) – This treaty promotes the international cooperation in the exploration and use of space, however, prohibits the usage of space for any nuclear weapons and / or any kind of weapons of mass destruction. It clearly emphasises that no state can claim sovereignty of or occupy outer space, the moon or any other Celestial Body. This treaty further deals with liability and states responsibility as to inform the UN  secretary general and the international scientific community of the nature, conduct, location and results of their activities in outer space.
  2. Rescue Agreement Treaty (1968) – This agreement deals with the rescue of astronauts, the return of astronauts and the return of objects launched into outer space. This agreement has a legal framework for emergency assistance of astronauts and the notification of launching of any space objects which has to return to earth and express who should be responsible for all the cost incurred for such a particular mission.
  3. Liability Convention (1972) – This convention is a pact of international liability for damage caused by space objects. It imposes an international and absolute liability on a launching state, or states as well as on those states who are members of inter-governmental organisations, for any damage caused by their objects. Launching state is defined as the state which launches or procures the launching of a space object or from whose territory or facility a space object is launched, irrespective of the success or not of the launch. Damage includes the loss of life, personal injury or any other impairment or health or loss of damage to property of state or of persons, natural or juridical or property of international, intergovernmental organisations. This also applies to any damage caused by a space object on the surface of the earth or to an aircraft flight.
  4. Registration Convention Treaty (1974) – The treaty obliges states to register all space objects in a register, which is maintained by the UN secretary general since 1962.
  5. Moon Treaty (1979) – The treaty declares that the moon is a global common for all humankind and is not subject to national appropriation and occupation.  It further stresses that no private ownership is allowed but all state parties have the right to exploration and use of the moon. In practice, this treaty has no force, because none of the space powers who engage in lunar exploration have ratified it: USA, Russia, China and India.

Although, these treaties exist there has been non-compliance by those leading space faring countries. Since the 1960s, the United States and Russia have conducted dozens of anti-satellite (ASAT) test missions in space, which resulted in most of orbital debris experienced even today (Weeden, 2013). Most recently China has performed an ASAT mission against its aging FY-1C weather satellite at 855 km altitude on the 11/01/2007. It launched a missile, which destroyed the satellite, resulting in 3000 pieces of debris larger than 10 cm in size (Glassman, 2009; Weeden, 2013). This event was further followed by the United States ASAT in 21/02/2008, firing a missile that destroyed one of its military satellites at around 250 km altitude. The US ascertained that the satellite was uncontrollably descending into the atmosphere with nearly fully fuelled tank of toxic hydrazine. Furthermore, its altitude was low enough to ensure swift re-entry of all the resulting space debris, and so, harmless to the space environment. The US delegate fully briefed the UN COPUOS unlike the Chinese.  The outcome by the US in destroying its satellite is applaudable. However, ignorance has been shown by the former President George W. Bush when asked what would the people say about the mission? He said “I don’t care what people will say. We’re doing it for the right reason, and it’s transparent” (Oberg, 2008). These clearly are signs of bullying with regard to space matters by space powers with advanced space technologies.  



The act of destroying a satellite can damage the space environment by creating dangerous amounts of space debris. Space debris can, therefore, lead to collisions and loss of important satellites, which has tremendous cost effects for Africa’s participation in space activities. Losing a satellite in-orbit due to space debris is no longer hypothetical, but rather a harsh reality and is likely to increase with years to come (Smitham, 2010). Grego (2014) argues that deliberate space debris creation might result in conflict between space fearing nations with unpredictable and dangerous consequences. Such consequences might trigger an arms race which would further divert the economic and political resources from other pressing issues like food security, climate change, health issues, etc. The need to sustain benefits of space for present and future generations and other countries that have not explored space as yet is vital if we are to obtain continuous benefits from space activities. Glassman (2009) suggests that a number of activities and commitments need to be revitalised. Current space best practice, also termed rules of the road, seek to minimize causing new space debris, through careful revision of both design and operational protocols:

  • ·      Separation of satellites from their carrier rocket should no longer result in loose bolts and other metal pieces flying off;
  • ·      satellites should have some propulsion capability to initiate collision avoidance manoeuvres;
  • ·      at the end of their service life, satellites, especially those in geosynchronous orbit (GSO), should be manoeuvred into a “graveyard orbit” at a different altitude;
  • ·      and valves should open to discharge any remaining propellant, to prevent overheating and explosive disruptions.

Technology debates about the most cost-effective ways of removing existing space debris range from laser vaporization of fragments, to ion-propelled robotic scavengers that would capture, and then de-orbit, dead satellites, in LEO. No international forum has yet resolved who should pay for this.


Space situational awareness for Africa should not only focus on launching satellites in space but also embark on space debris tracking studies together with assessing and monitoring collision risk models. African satellite manufacturers need to consider whipple shields where needed. African members of COPUOS need to table debate on the financial responsibility of the historic space powers to remove their space debris, as this becomes technologically feasible. They should propose that payment for such space debris removal should be pro rata to the cumulative total of payloads each historic space power has orbited.



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