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Realities and dreams: Africa in space

A stunning and detailed black and white image of Africa from space

Mosaic of high-res images of Africa captured by Canada's RADARSAT-1 satellite

Today is the last day of the 62nd International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in Cape Town, South Africa. The IAC is a vast annual meeting of the space world, organized by the International Astronautical Federation, attended by the heads and senior executives of the world’s space agencies, astronomers, space lawyers, engineers, scientists, entrepreneurs and astronauts. This is the first time it has taken place in an African country.

What is the relevance of space exploration to African countries? African astronomy has a long history, as explored in the excellent documentary Cosmic Africa, made in 2003 with South African astronomer Thebe Medupe. South Africa has been involved in a limited way in space activities since the 1960s. Today, several African nations are emerging as participants in the space technology race. Nigeria, South Africa, Algeria and Egypt have launched their own satellites. A few years ago, Nigeria announced an intention to send the first Nigerian astronaut into space. South Africa already has its own astronaut, Mark Shuttleworth, the second self-funded space `’tourist`’. South Africa is also competing with Australia to host the Square Kilometer Array (SKA), the world’s largest radiotelescope.

Bright projection of a globe apparently onto a transparent screen or floating, behind which a man and woman are seen

Alejo Duque & Joanna Griffin: Bogota Declaration

Economic benefits are obviously the driving force for space technology development in Africa. But there are cultural and political issues around the management and exploitation of space, in which African people should have a voice. The contentious issue of geostationary orbits is one example. A geostationary orbit is where satellites orbit the earth above the equator, such that they appear to be stationary from the earth. Geostationary satellites have revolutionised global communications, and have important defense and intelligence applications. Naturally, early on the United States and the Soviet Union occupied the most valuable and coveted spots in geostationary orbit. In 1976, eight equatorial countries, including Kenya, Congo and Uganda, claimed sovereignty over the geostationary orbit, in the Bogotá Declaration, drawing attention to the inequity of orbital allocations. The Bogotá Declaration is the subject of a project by artists Alejo Duque and Joanna Griffin exploring the poetics of the declaration as well as the “inequalities in technological power, the physics of orbit and its contested spaces”.

The goal of the International Astronautical Federation’s technical activities committee on the cultural utilization of space (ITACCUS), of which I’m co-chair, is to promote a self-reflective space culture that promotes the peaceful use of space. It would be great to see African artists develop a cultural response to the new space drive as it develops. We welcome nominations for new ITACCUS members from African countries who can be liaisons to both African space and cultural organisations.

Picture of installation of paintings and sculpture depicting space themes merging contemporary and traditional Burkina Faso art styles

Work by Marco Boggio Sella and unnamed artist/s from Burkino Faso in the exhibition: Dreams and Nightmares of the African Astronauts

Man standing in desert looking at ancient arrangement of stones on the ground

Calendar circle in the Sahara desert visited by Thebe Medupe in Cosmic Africa

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