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These women are shaping the future of African space exploration

   March 8, 2021 10:29 PM
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by Samantha Bresnahan, CNN

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African Space exploration
 
(CNN)In the heart of Cape Town, a control room buzzes with activity. Technicians monitor a grid of screens, scanning data that will soon make its way to astronomers working to deepen our understanding of the universe.

Operated by the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO), the data is coming from the MeerKAT array -- one of the most advanced radio telescopes in the world. Comprised of 64 connected satellite dishes in a remote part of the Northern Cape, the $330 million telescope has put South Africa on the astronomy map. It's also a key component of the Square Kilometer Array (SKA), an international effort that will see thousands of dishes built in remote regions of South Africa and Australia.

"This is probably the biggest science project on the whole continent," says Pontsho Maruping, SARAO deputy managing director. "We've already started training astronomers in other African countries." "What excites me is the fact that it allows people on the African continent to really contribute to one of the most technologically advanced industries in the world," she adds. While an African-born astronaut has yet to launch to space, programs across the continent are on the rise, especially in the fields of satellites and telescopes. Consulting group Space in Africa values space programs on the continent in excess of $7 billion, while countries including Egypt, Nigeria, South Africa, Angola, Kenya, Ethiopia and Rwanda have established or expanded their space agencies in the last 20 years. Several of those programs include women in leadership roles. In celebration of International Women's Day, meet three inspiring female pioneers shaping the future of space exploration across Africa and beyond. Jessie Ndaba, space engineer

When South African space engineer Jessie Ndaba and company co-founder Khalid Manjoo named their satellite startup, the choice was easy: Astrofica -- a hybrid of "astronomy" and "Africa" -- seemed like the perfect fit. The fully Black-owned satellite tech company, based in Cape Town, specializes in assembling, manufacturing and testing satellite systems -- a lucrative focus of the African space industry. According to Space in Africa, 41 satellites had been launched from the continent by August 2020, and that number is likely to triple by 2024. More than $4 billion has been invested in satellite development across Africa so far. Space "was and is a calling," Ndaba says, noting that her fascination began with a photo of a rocket engine in a textbook gifted by her grandmother, who raised her in Johannesburg.

Having experienced the industry's evolution over the last 15 years, she says the key to success in the sector is collaboration -- and helping people on Earth. "We are all for partnering with other countries in Africa or outside Africa," Ndaba says, "as long as we are working toward improving people's lives." But she says sometimes that message gets lost, pointing to the common criticism that space endeavors are expensive and that governments like South Africa's should be investing in improving the lives of its citizens. "There's a number of benefits that we get from what we do, but we fail to communicate it to people," Ndaba says, adding that satellite imagery can be used to assess land quality for farming or housing construction. "We're always looking at the challenges that people are facing, and we look for the solution."

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