KOFORIDUA, GHANA — In a small laboratory on the ground floor of a university 80 kilometers north of Accra, students practice counting down for the launch of their model satellite.
Later that same afternoon, the so-called CanSat, which is scarcely larger than a can of Coke, climbed nearly 200 meters into the overcast mid-May sky. While successfully launching the miniature device is but a small step toward establishing Ghana's foothold in the heavens, nearby posters of Japanese and American spacecraft on the lab’s lime green walls suggest the true size of the students’ ambitions.
Their dream of putting large-scale satellites into orbit is shared by Ghana’s government, which launched a national space program just over a year ago. But unlike African countries such as Nigeria that have received foreign help in developing satellites, Ghana is taking a home-grown approach.
Officials hope to have an observational satellite in orbit within five years. In order to ensure a strong program over the long term, they need to educate more students with a passion for space.
That’s why the head of the national space agency, Dr. Prosper Kofi Ashilevi, attended the launch of the model satellite, held on the campus of All Nations University in the town of Koforidua.
“One of our core businesses is to develop a human resource base for the space industry," he said. "If an education institution like this, a private institution like All Nations, has taken that bold step to go and do this — to train undergraduates, to train non-scientists for the industry — you know it’s very much welcome. Because we need the base, the human resource base, to go higher up.”
Students at All Nations spent several months working on the model satellite, coming into the lab after class and sometimes staying until just before dawn.
Though they initially hoped to launch the model satellite using a rocket, they were unable to get permission to import one. So instead, at just after 1 p.m. on launch day, they attached the CanSat to a bright yellow balloon, hoisting it up into the air using rope and letting it slowly fall down to earth with the help of a parachute, achieving a maximum height of 165 meters.
While only one of the two launch attempts was successful, the satellite did collect readable data, accomplishing the group's primary objective. As a cheering crowd looked on, the director of the lab read out temperature and air pressure readings and projected images taken by CanSat on a screen.
While some question Ghana's need for satellite technology and a space program — especially as data collected from satellites can be purchased from countries and agencies already using the technology — government officials emphasize satellite technology's ability to aid in predicting weather and natural disasters, and in monitoring natural resources.
Aaron Yankey, the 26-year-old systems engineer on the project, said he was glad to be part of something that could aid in the country’s development.
“The world is becoming more unstable — global warming and all that — so we need more sophisticated systems to monitor and predict things," he said. "I think it is very important for Ghana because Ghana is in a strategic point, economically and geopolitically, within the region. We need such things to be able to compete.”
But Samuel Donkor, president of All Nations University, says he has been questioned repeatedly on why he supports the program for students, which has so far cost the university $50,000.
“Why should we be thinking about going into space when we have basic fundamental issues with the economy and standard of living? These are some of the questions they ask," he said. "They wonder why anybody would even think of it when we can’t get a stable power supply in the country."
Despite the skepticism, he says the university will continue to support the satellite program.
Students say they hope to cast CanSat into orbit within two years.