The tiny Horn of Africa nation of Djibouti, where China has vast commercial and military interests, could be set to host the continent’s first orbital spaceport.
This comes after Djibouti signed a US$1 billion preliminary deal with a Hong Kong-based firm to build satellite and rocket launching facilities, as the country banks on its proximity to the Equator to attract investments into the space industry.
Sitting at the intersection of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, Djibouti is a major linchpin in China’s maritime Belt and Road Initiative plans, and since 2017 has hosted China’s only overseas naval base.
The spaceport is expected to have seven satellite launch pads and three rocket testing platforms. The project will also include the construction of a port and roads in the northern Obock region for the transport of materials necessary for the development of aerospace sites.
The construction works are planned to be completed by 2027 and the infrastructure will be handed over to Djibouti after a 30-year co-management contract with HKATG. Djibouti's government will provide the necessary land and assistance to build and operate the facility. The spaceport will be a significant addition to Djibouti's economy, which has is heavily reliant on foreign military presence. It hosts the US as well as Chinese naval bases. Washington is increasingly wary of growing Chinese military presence in the horn of Africa even as the two cooperate with each other on anti-piracy and anti-terrorism operations in the Gulf of Aden.
African space industry has seen strong growth in recent years, with an increase in investments in satellite technology. Over 20 countries have established space programmes. The continent's space economy was valued at $19.49bn in 2021 and is projected to grow 16.16% to US$22.64bn by 2026, according to the Space in Africa annual report.
South Africa is a major player in the region’s space industry, having launched the first fully locally developed satellites via SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket in 2022. These satellites, developed at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology, monitor the movements of ships along the country’s coast.
The Kenya Space Agency was established in 2017 to regulate and coordinate space-related activities in the country, and is also working towards building a spaceport. U.S.-based Longshot Space Technology in 2021 commissioned a team of students from Kenyatta and Nairobi Universities to study the ideal site for such a facility. Kenya is regarded as a good location from which to launch rockets due to its proximity to the equator. Because the Earth spins on its axis, a rocket launched from a location close to the equator will have more rotational energy, which allows it to reach orbit with less fuel, making the launch cheaper and more efficient.
Satellites can significantly impact Africa's development through various applications such as tracking terrorist activities, improving agricultural productivity, and expanding internet access. Nigeria used satellite technology to monitor the movements of terror group Boko Haram, while in Ghana satellite imagery assists small-scale cocoa farmers to be more productive. Elon Musk’s Starlink, a satellite-based internet service, launched in Nigeria in December 2022, with plans to expand to other African countries.
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‘Why African nations are shooting for the stars’, Harvard International Review, 15 April 2022
‘Chinese and American interests vie for Kenyan spaceport’, African Business, 16 August 2022
‘African space and satellite industry now valued at USD 19.49 billion’, Space in Africa, 17 August 2022
‘Africa's space industry attracting EU and Chinese investors’, Mail & Guardian, 03 October 2022
‘Djibouti signs $1bn rocket deal with Hong Kong company’, African Business, 10 January 2023