Orbital Parking: A Case for Africa

In the competition for orbital slots, African nations are trying hard to keep up with developed countries who have the upper-hand.

The past couple of decades have seen exponential growth in the field of space technology, resulting in increased use of telecommunication satellites. However, with more satellites in space, we are also faced with collision risks and the dangers of the debris, on top of rising competition for parking slots in orbit.

In order to manage the situation, the international community has come together to monitor and regulate the allocation of parking slots in the geostationary earth orbit (GEO) through the International Telecommunications Union (ITU). This union keeps a record of orbital slots registrations by administrations which apply on behalf of satellite operators. The satellites’ slots are allotted freely on a first-come-first-served basis, and they are only allowed to operate within a limited timespan of 15 years. The problem with this system is that operators are constantly refiling for their slot while replacing old satellites with new ones, resulting in them holding on to their orbital slot perpetually.

Most of the congestion in the GEO comes from the constellation of satellites launched from developed countries of North America, Europe and Asia. This leaves fewer to no opportunities for new entrants. With only around 1800 orbital parking spaces in the GEO, certain regions tend to be more in demand and thus, more populated, especially the C-band and Ku-band frequencies.

Space in C-band frequency is particularly important for emerging economies and new entrants in the space industry like countries in Africa, as C-band is the only band that can handle the heavy climatic rainfall of the African region. On the other hand, having to use C-band satellites is a stumbling block for poor nations in Africa as the satellite dishes are larger, hard to install and expensive to obtain and transport.

Apart from all of this hassle, the ITU has taken up the measure of only allowing 5 years for satellite operators to launch and operate their satellites successfully before the slot expires. Economically challenged countries in the African continent may find it difficult to achieve successful satellite launches within the timeframe due to limited financial resources, and the ITU may not allocate another slot after the expiry, pushing nations to explore leasing options.

To mitigate the problem at hand, 31 African countries banded together and launched a bid to safeguard their orbital parking spaces to station satellites for economic development. The African Telecommunications Union (ATU) partnered with the Communications Authority of Kenya (CA) and ITU Radio Communications Sector gathered the countries for a workshop that enabled them to share new resources and generate corresponding satellite notices to the ITU, allowing the countries opportunities to make use of shared resources and launch satellite systems for broadcasting services.

In the case of Africa, it is noted by the international community that instead of a first-come-first-served basis that gives developed countries the upper-hand, we must consider equity and conservation in the allocation of finite space resources. While we seek to decongest our GEO and improve the space environment for future ventures, we must also ensure a barrier-free industry that narrows the digital divide for an inclusive space community that encourages economically challenged nations as well.

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