The Ministry of Innovation & Technology (MinT) has signed a memorandum of understanding with a US-based aerospace company, ORION Applied Science and Technology (Orion AST), to develop and launch small satellites designed for near-earth space operations and applications.
The agreement, signed yesterday in Addis Ababa, aims to onboard Ethiopia on the technology of the company that’s in development and give the country access and control over its aerospace data.
The Ministry plans to use Orion AST’s satellites to observe and collect information on agricultural activities, water bodies, mining, soil and moisture, cadastral mapping, disaster management, and monitoring, as well as for research and development purposes.
“MinT is responsible for supporting Ethiopia’s economy through innovation and technology, and today’s MOU is part of that,” said Belete Tolla (Ph.D.) minster of Innovation & Technology, during the signing ceremony.
Ethiopia pays around 50 million dollars annually for various satellite providers. The country makes these payments when its various institutions require satellite observations and communications, such as in preparing master plans for urban centers.
The country hopes its partnership with Orion AST will reduce this cost in addition to allowing it to tap into space technology.
“This singing of an OMU between Orion and the government of Ethiopia symbolizes much between our commercial activities in technology for space and science and the hopes of providing peaceful civil applications to promote growth, opportunity, and prosperity for the Ethiopian people,” said Alvin Alexander, CEO & founder of Orion AST.
Since 2013 the Northern Virginia-based firm has been working on a space-based delivery platform that can provide global services to commercial and public-sector organizations. It plans to launch a set of small satellites that will fly along the line of the earth’s equator.
“Unlike Ethiopia’s previously launched satellites, these satellites will be in orbit much closer to Ethiopia and are perfectly positioned to observe the country,” says Yassin Ibrahim, Orion AST Africa Communication.
Ethiopia has so far launched two satellites into space with the help of China. ETRSS-1 is the first Ethiopian Earth Observation Satellite, and it has been used for applications in different sectors, including agriculture, infrastructure monitoring, water resource monitoring, flood monitoring, and other similar applications.
This satellite takes images at Ground Sampling Distance (GSD), or spatial resolution of 13.75m.
“This high figure means the images produced by the satellite have lower resolution and less visible details. On the other hand, Orion AST’s satellites will have GSD of 0.5m, with their images giving more details,” stated Yasin.
“Moreover, the previous satellites orbit above the earth’s pole, providing images of Ethiopia every two to four days. But Orion AST will give satellite images every 90 minutes,” he adds.
Orion AST plans to launch its satellites from Brazil and is one of the four commercial space companies with the credential to launch from the Latin American country.
To get into equatorial orbit, a satellite must be launched from a place on earth close to the equator. NASA often launches satellites aboard an Ariane rocket into equatorial orbit from French Guyana.
But Brazil has a new space ambition and plans to capitalize on its unique geographical conditions. Brazil’s Alcantara Base is considered the world’s most perfectly placed launch site due to its proximity to the equator.
The launch site is located 2.3 degrees south of the equator, making the site an ideal location for launching satellites into geostationary orbit, meaning that the satellites remain fixed over one area of the earth during rotation.
With a deal with Brazilian authorities in place, Orion AST says it’s working on developing the technology. In 2019, the company sought to raise funding of $12M to build the orbital constellation of small satellites.
However, the company has declined to comment on its progress so far and the money involved with the Ethiopian deal, stating discussions are still in place.
“As part of the agreement, the data centers will be in Ethiopia, and Orion AST will train local staff. This means Ethiopia will, for the first time, own the satellite observation data,” Yasin told Shega.
Besides developmental use, MinT plans to monetize the satellite data and sell it to interested parties.
Remote sensing data provides much essential and critical information for monitoring many applications. For example, a new scientific study that used satellite imagery to evaluate the impacts of Ethiopia’s Sustainable Land Management Project (SLMP) has found that the program has increased land productivity and improved resilience to severe drought, advising for expansion of the project.
The paper states that conventional impact evaluations relying on household surveys were not well suited for the evaluation as they are ineffective, time-consuming, and expensive, and the program’s true impacts were captured using satellite images.