Advances in electronic and manufacturing technologies have led to miniaturization of devices with enhanced processing capabilities. These advancements are enabling the development of smaller, inexpensive, efficient and capable satellites that can perform an extended range of functions, operations and solutions, with integration of modern technologies such as Artificial Intelligence, Robotics and Machine Learning.
The current trend in satellite development amongst state and non-state actors including commercial operators (such as Starlink) is to develop and launch constellations of small satellites for effective, reliable and inexpensive services and solutions in broadband communications, earth observation and remote sensing, among others. Nanosatellites and microsatellites have become attractive owing to their relatively simple and fast design and development requirements.
The Kenya Space Agency is leveraging on the simple and cost-effective designs and development of nanosatellites to develop national capability in space systems engineering and operations. Deliberate capacity building efforts realized through beneficial collaborations with local and international partners has resulted in several ongoing projects, culminating in the development of Taifa-1 Satellite, Kenya’s first operational nanosatellite scheduled to be launched into orbit early April 2023.
Kenya formally became a space faring nation when it launched into orbit the first satellite in May 2018 from the International Space Station and registered it with the United Nations Office of Outer Space Affairs. This article traces the journey of Kenya’s efforts at developing national space capability in development of satellites and outlines the expected uses and benefits of the development of Taifa-1 Satellite to Kenya.
Kenya’s Journey in the Development of Nano Satellites
Kenya's entry in space systems engineering capability began in 2017 with the development of the first Kenyan nano satellite, the First Kenyan University NanoSatellite – Precursor Flight (1KUNS-PF). The 1U satellite was jointly developed by the University of Nairobi and Sapienza University of Rome with launch support from Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) and the United Nations Office of Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA). JAXA offered to launch the satellite for free from its experimental module, the “Kibo Cube” aboard the International Space Station (ISS).
A model of Kenya's first University NanoSatellite
1KUNS-PF was a technology demonstrator and capacity building project for Kenyan engineers in space systems engineering, as well as design and development of a space-flight model nanosatellite. The satellite was successfully deployed into orbit from the ISS on 11 May 2018. It de-orbited on 12 June 2020 after natural degradation.
Since then, KSA engineers in collaboration with Kenyan public universities (University of Nairobi, Jomo Kenyatta University of Science and Technology, Kenyatta University and Technical University of Kenya) have continued with capacity building efforts towards development of a larger 3U satellite engineering model, currently undergoing development by the Universities. The capacity built and skills gained have yielded the development of Taifa-1 Satellite.
Nations in the region have developed and launched their own satellites. Nigeria and Angola have communications satellites; Egypt, Ethiopia, and South Africa have earth observation satellites. Recently, Angola announced a deal with Airbus Defence and Space to develop a sovereign earth observation satellite system. These are just but a few of examples in the region. The deliberate choice to build and operate own earth observation satellite by Kenya is not motivated by the competition but by socioeconomic development imperatives.
As a sovereign nation, Kenya cannot forever depend on vendors and other commercial operators to procure all space services; we have a responsibility to move with the rest of the world in developing capabilities that are fit for purpose. Enhanced flexibility and ability to acquire imagery at will, at the desired resolution and repetition rate, and responsiveness to time-critical requirements are some of the considerations that militate for a sovereign earth observation system.
The development of Taifa-1 earth observation satellite is part of continuing effort to develop national space capability and enhancement of utilization of space services for socioeconomic development.
Taifa-1 Sat Mission and Objectives
Taifa-1 Sat is Kenya’s first operational earth observation satellite. It is an optical satellite with two imagers for its primary and secondary missions designed to deliver panchromatic and multispectral imageries respectively. The satellite is the first of what is intended to be a constellation of small earth observation satellites, with subsequent systems expected to be of higher capability. Taifa-1 is aimed at realizing the following objectives:
- Capacity building on space systems engineering, space operations, data processing and analytics, as well as ground receiver station services and operations;
- Technology demonstrator on what capabilities or flexibilities we can realize with own / sovereign earth observation asset;
- Spur interest in investing in the development and deploying of more capable systems.
- Catalyse the growth of Kenya’s startups in the space sector.
The 16m resolution panchromatic and 32m resolution multispectral imageries will be useful for decision support in environmental monitoring, climate change monitoring and mitigation, food security through crop condition monitoring and crop yield estimation, disaster management, and natural resources management, among others.
Taifa-1 Satellite Development
Taifa-1 has been fully designed and developed by a team of Kenyan engineers. The manufacturing of parts, testing and qualification were done in collaboration with EnduroSat AD, a Bulgarian aerospace manufacturer. The Kenyan team underwent customized training on the space environment, orbital mechanics, space systems engineering, space operations and project management to be able to understand and design a mission that would survive the extreme space environment.
The project entailed research and development of the different components of satellite mission design, full satellite development cycle, in-orbit control, and data reception and processing. The team spent three months to plan and determine the specific objectives, technical requirements, design specifications, cost analysis and documentation regimen for Taifa-1.
Taifa-1 System and Sub-Systems
The Taifa-1 satellite comprises four primary sections: the payload, satellite bus, ground segment, and image processing segment. The payload of the Taifa-1 satellite is a multispectral imager for imaging. This is considered the most important section of the satellite because it determines the success of the mission. The satellite bus is responsible for providing service-related functions to the satellite, including providing power, thermal control, and communication capabilities for the satellite.
The control ground segment manages, controls, and operates the Taifa-1 satellite and any other satellite when granted access. It is responsible for receiving data monitoring the satellite's health and status, sending commands to the satellite, and receiving data from the satellite. The control ground segment plays a critical role in ensuring that the satellite operates correctly in space. The image processing segment performs data processing, handling, and archiving. It is responsible for transforming the raw data captured by the satellite into useful information that can be used by decision-makers in various fields.
The medium resolution multispectral imager will provide valuable information about the composition and condition of the Earth's surface. The high resolution panchromatic band will be used for pan sharpening, which entails using a higher-resolution panchromatic image to fuse with a lower-resolution multiband satellite image to produces a much higher multi-band satellite image for the six spectral bands.
The data and images captured by the cameras will be stored on-board the satellite and transmitted to the ground station for processing and analysis. The insights and information gathered from the analysis of this data will provide useful information to policy and decision-makers in the diverse various fields of applications seeking address the multiple challenges facing the country.
Launch of Taifa-1 is a moment of national pride. Taifa-1 satellite mission is an important milestone in Kenya’s trajectory of developing national space capability. It is the first significant step in a deliberate journey towards realization of Kenya's aspirations of effectively exploiting and exploring space opportunities for national socioeconomic development, and development of Kenya’s space economy. The flexibility and autonomy realized with data acquired from, and operations of, Taifa-1 should spur investments in other higher capable systems in a constellation for higher reliability, resolution and repetition rates for diverse applications and national interest.