Teenage girls to launch Africa’s first private space satellite

Updated 2:12 PM EDT, Thu March 16, 2017

Story highlights

Africa will launch its first private satellite into space

It's been built by schoolgirls

(CNN) —  

They may be teenagers, but 17-year-old Brittany Bull and 16-year-old Sesam Mngqengqiswa have grand 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 over the earth’s poles scanning Africa’s surface.

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

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

South Africa's program aims to encourage girls into STEM, particularly astronomy. Less than 10% of young women are interested in STEM subjects.
PHOTO: Coursey Karl Schoemaker
South Africa's program aims to encourage girls into STEM, particularly astronomy. Less than 10% of young women are interested in STEM subjects.

“Where our food is growing, 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 don’t always get out there in time.”

Information received twice a day will go towards disaster prevention.

It’s part of a project by South Africa’s Meta Economic Development Organization (MEDO) working with Morehead State University in the US.

Ambitious first

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

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, which will allow us to receive reliable data,” declares an enthusiastic Mngqengqiswa, of 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), MEDO predicts, but currently only 14% of  the STEM workforce globally are women.
PHOTO: Coursey Karl Schoemaker
By 2020 80% of jobs will be related to STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics), MEDO predicts, but currently only 14% of the STEM workforce globally are women.

Drought and environmental effects from climate change have continued to plague the country in recent years. An El Niño induced drought led to a shortfall of 9.3 million tons in southern Africa’s April 2016 maize production, according to a UN report.

“It has caused our economy to drop … This is a way of looking at how we can boost our economy,” says the young Mngqengqiswa.

Inspiring girls

The girls' satellite will have a detailed vantage point of South Africa's drought crisis which led to a shortfall of 9.3 million tons in southern Africa's April 2016 maize production.
PHOTO: Courtesy Karl Schoemaker
The girls' satellite will have a detailed vantage point of South Africa's drought crisis which led to a shortfall of 9.3 million tons in southern Africa's April 2016 maize production.

Initial trials involved the girls programming and launching small CricketSat satellites using high-altitude weather balloons, before eventually helping to configure the satellite payloads.

Small format satellites are low cost ways of gathering data on the planet quickly. Tests so far have involved collecting thermal imaging data which is then interpreted for early flood or drought detection.

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

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

Mngqengqiswa comes from a single parent household. Her mother is a domestic worker. By becoming a space engineer or astronaut, the teenager hopes to make her mother proud.

08:02 - Source: CNN
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