Girls to design Africa’s first private space satellite

Highlights of history

Africa will launch its first private satellite into space

It is built by schoolgirls


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

They are part of a team 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 and scan the surface of Africa.

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

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

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

“Where our food grows, where we can plant more trees and vegetation, and also how we can monitor remote areas,” she says. “We have a lot of forest fires and floods, but we do not always get out there on time.”

Information received twice a day will go to disaster prevention.

It is part of a project from the South African Meta Economic Development Organization (MEDO) working with Morehead State University in the USA.

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

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

“We expect to receive a good signal that will enable us to receive reliable data,” declares an enthusiastic Mngqengqiswa from Philippi High School. “In South Africa, we have experienced some of the worst floods and droughts, and it has really affected the farmers very badly.”

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

Droughts and environmental impacts from climate change have continued to plague the country in recent years. An El Niño-induced drought led to a 9.3 million tonne deficit in southern Africa’s maize production in April 2016, according to a UN report.

“It’s made our economy fall … This is a way of looking at how we can boost our economy,” says the young Mngqengqiswa.

The girls' satellite will have a detailed vantage point over South Africa's drought crisis, which led to a deficit of 9.3 million tonnes in southern Africa's maize production in April 2016.

The initial experiments involved the girls who programmed and launched small CricketSat satellites using high-altitude weather balloons before finally helping to configure the satellite’s payload.

Small format satellites are inexpensive ways to collect data about the planet quickly. Tests have so far involved the collection of thermal image data, which is then interpreted for early flood or drought detection.

“It’s a new field for us [in Africa] but I think with that we would be able to make positive changes in our economy, ”says Mngqengqiswa.

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

Mngqengqiswa comes from a single breadwinner household. Her mother is a homemaker. By becoming a space engineer or astronaut, the teenager hopes to make his mother proud.

“Discovering space and seeing the Earth’s atmosphere is not something many black Africans have been able to do or not have the opportunity to look at,” Mngqengqiswa said.

The schoolgirl is right; in half a century of space travel, no black African has traveled to outer space. “I want to see these things for myself,” says Mngqengqiswa, “I want to be able to experience these things.”

Her teammate, Bull, agrees: “I want to show my teammates that we do not have to sit and limit ourselves. Any career is possible – including space travel.”

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