Girls to design Africa’s first private space satellite

Highlights of the story

Africa will launch the first private satellite into space

It was built by schoolgirls


They may be teenagers, but 17-year-old Brittany Bull and 16-year-old Sesam Mngqengqiswa have big ambitions – launching Africa’s first private satellite into space in 2019.

They are part of a group of high school girls from Cape Town, South Africa, who have designed and built payloads for a satellite that will orbit the earth’s poles sweeping the surface of Africa.

Once in space, the satellite will collect information on agriculture and food security in the continent.

Using the transmitted data, “we can try to identify and predict what problems Africa will face in the future,” explains Bull, a student at Pelican Park High School.

South Africa's program aims to encourage girls to participate in STEM, especially astronomy. Less than 10% of young women are interested in STEM subjects.

“Where our food is growing, where we can grow more trees and vegetation, and also how we can monitor remote areas,” she said. “We have a lot of wildfires and floods but we don’t always get out of there in time.”

Information received twice a day goes towards disaster prevention.

This is part of a project by South Africa’s Meta Economic Development Organization (MEDO) in partnership with Morehead State University in the United States.

The girls (14 in total) are being trained by satellite engineers from Cape Peninsula University of Technology, to encourage more African women to participate in STEM (science, technology, engineering, maths) ).

If the launch is successful, it will make MEDO the first private company in Africa to build a satellite and put it in orbit.

“We expect to get a good signal, which will allow us to get reliable data,” said enthusiastic Mngqengqiswa, of Philippi High School. “In South Africa, we’ve had some of the worst floods and droughts and it’s really hit farmers hard.”

MEDO predicts that by 2020, 80% of jobs will be related to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), but currently only 14% of the global STEM workforce is women.

Drought and the environmental impact of climate change have continued to afflict the country in recent years. According to a United Nations report, an El Niño-induced drought left South Africa’s maize production in April 2016 short of 9.3 million tonnes.

Young Mngqengqiswa said: “It has brought our economy down… This is one way to see how we can boost our economy.

Girls' satellite will have a detailed vantage point on the drought crisis in South Africa that resulted in a shortage of 9.3 million tonnes in Southern Africa's April 2016 maize production.

Initial tests involved the girls programming and launching the small CricketSat satellite in a high-altitude weather balloon, before eventually helping to configure the satellite payload.

Small-format satellites are a quick, low-cost way to collect data on the planet. Tests to date have included the collection of thermal image data, which is then interpreted for early detection of floods or droughts.

“It’s a new area for us [in Africa] but I think with it, we can make positive changes to our economy,” said Mngqengqiswa.

Ultimately, it is hoped the project will include girls from Namibia, Malawi, Kenya and Rwanda.

Mngqengqiswa comes from a single parent family. Her mother is a domestic helper. By becoming a space engineer or astronaut, this girl hopes to make her mother proud.

“Exploring space and seeing Earth’s atmosphere, it’s not something that many black Africans can do or don’t get the chance to look at,” Mngqengqiswa said.

The female student is right; In half a century of space travel, no black African has traveled into space. “I want to witness these things with my own eyes,” Mngqengqiswa said. “I want to be able to experience these things.”

Her teammate Bull agrees: “I want to show the girls that we don’t have to sit around or limit ourselves. Any career can do it – even aerospace.” Girls to design Africa’s first private space satellite

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