In May 2017, a satellite will blast off to space. While that might not seem like anything new, this satellite represents a few firsts: it’s Africa’s first private satellite, which holds both practical and symbolic value. Perhaps even more noteworthy is that the satellite wasn’t designed by a bunch of people in lab coats in some fancy facility—it was designed by 14 South African high school girls.
Schoolgirls working on Africa’s first private satellite. Credit: MEDO
South Africa’s Meta Economic Development Organization (MEDO) spearheads the project, with help from America’s Morehead State University and engineers from South Africa’s Cape Peninsula University of Technology who trained the students as part of the Space Trek program. The initiative is part of a country-wide attempt to present opportunities in STEM fields to women in Africa. Currently, fewer than 30% of scientific researchers in Africa are women.
14 teenage girls have designed a satellite constructed to deliver thermal imaging data twice a day that will help Africa prepare for and deal with extreme weather, crop shortages, and other agricultural challenges. Climate-related problems such as droughts have made farming difficult throughout much of the continent. A recent UN report showed that droughts caused by El Nino decimated South Africa’s maize crop—the 2016 spring harvest came up millions of tons short. The country had to import the crop, which in turn has hurt its economy.
One year of fires in Africa. Credit: NASA
The students trained for the task by programming CricketSat satellites, which are small, battery-powered, and relatively simple circuit satellites. Successful test launches of CricketSats with high altitude weather balloons allowed the students to test for positioning and signal strength before designing the actual satellite. The CricketSats also returned temperature data via radio waves (or chirps), which the girls learned to decode.
MEDO anticipates that the project will extend its reach to girls in other African countries such as Kenya, Rwanda, Namibia, and Malawi. Ultimately, it strives to inspire these students to reach for the stars—literally.