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June 27, 2013

Kenya Repurposing Satellite Dishes for Space Exploration

by Mohammed Yusuf

The construction of a huge radio telescope in South Africa is giving a boost to the science and space industries in Kenya.  The country’s top space physicist says telecommunication companies are leasing out their now-obsolete satellite dishes for use in the new project.

Several African countries are working to build a large radio telescope known as the Square Kilometer Array, or SKA.  The core station will be in South Africa, while other countries across the continent - Ghana, Mauritius, Botswana and Kenya - will host nodes that will operate together.

Professor Paul Baki, head of pure and applied science at the Technical University of Kenya, is looking for land to build on in the east African country.  Baki says Kenya's node of the SKA needs about one square kilometer of land that is free from electronic interference.

“At the moment we are doing site survey to locate radio telescope, because you need a radio quiet zone that is an area where you don’t get TV signals, you don’t get mobile phone signals, and so forth," he said. "You have to block it out over a specific area so that what you only receive is from outer space.  It's because of that signal from outer space that will be used, that we shall use to look back in time and see how the universe evolved from the initial instant up to date." .

Baki established a training program in basic space science at the university in 2004, with the help of the International Astronomical Union.

As part of the project, he and his colleagues are converting old satellite dishes, previously used for telecommunications, to work with the radio telescope.

“Telescopes are expensive to construct but its much easier to convert an existing facility like telecom dishes which are no longer used because of fiber optics.  With the arrival of fiber optics we no longer rely on satellite communication that much to transmit signals," he said.

The telecom dishes have to be reconfigured because the kind of signals they were made to receive are strong, while the signals coming from space are extremely weak.

“You combine signals from a number of these dishes and then with that you can be able to look up in space, identify an object of choice that you can use for positioning measurements on the surface of the earth," Baki said. "And this is very useful for surveying applications also for navigation of the aircraft.  So when we develop our potential and capacity in that area I think we shall have moved a step ahead in terms of tapping space technology for basic applications."

Baki says in addition to learning more about the universe, the project can also help with infrastructure development in Kenya, and will create jobs in the tech industry.

Scientists hope to expand the Kenyan space program to include the development of satellites that would be launched into orbit from a Kenya-based station.

The country previously had a launch station in the sea off the coast of Malindi which is no longer operational.  Baki says they want to re-establish one on land, taking advantage of a strategically prime location near the equator.