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Sunday, September 15, 2013

Nigeria Resumes Rocket Testing



SUNDAY, 15 SEPTEMBER 2013



AFTER an extended hiatus, Nigeria has resumed its controversial testing of rockets at the Centre for Space Transport and Propulsion (CSTP)—an operational arm of the National Space Research and Development Agency (NASRDA).

Dr. Charles Attah Osheku, the new CSTP director and chief executive officer, confirmed Friday, in a late night phone interview, that a series of test firings of experimental rockets were conducted last March and also in April.

The launches, he said, are ongoing: “We are conducting the tests primarily for scientific purposes, but also as training exercises for our technical personal and a challenge to our scientists and engineers, for whom the experience is vitally important”.

A NASRDA scientific officer, who requested anonymity, reported that CSTP has recently launched several rockets “with varying degrees of success”. Some of these, he said, had reached altitudes of three kilometers, possibly higher.

The size and configuration of the crafts, or whether there is foreign involvement, was not specified. The Guardian had, on Sunday, November 16, 2008, reported that CSTP had been secretly launching indigenously constructed experimental rockets.

During The Guardian’s visit to Epe, in 2008, Oluremi A. Fashade, the then Coordinator of the Centre, brought out one of the rockets and released a video of a successful test. The solid fuel missile was about three metres long and constructed entirely from locally sourced materials.

In his interview, Fashade — who now heads Research and Development at the African Regional Centre for Space Science and Technology Education, Il-Ife — said NASRDA would eventually “graduate to bigger and more complex craft.”

Osheku did not reveal the exact dimensions of the rockets his Centre is currently testing. But an earlier interview, with another source, left the impression that these missiles are larger than the ones Fashade had been experimenting with.

Another uncertainty is the site of the launches. At Epe, the testing range was adjacent to the campus of Lagos State University — and may still be.

But when Fashade was Coordinator, he told The Guardian that NASRDA would construct a new launch facility, on a remote island, off Nigeria’s coast.

No one is willing to discuss this now. When the subject was broached to Dr. S.O. Mohammed, the director general at NASRDA, his reaction was: “We don’t want to talk about ‘launch sites’. The Federal Government will decide if, and when, that issue is to be addressed.”

Internationally, rocketry is a sensitive subject, because it encompasses “dual use technology”—instruments that can be used, either for peaceful or military purposes. “Nigeria must, therefore, tread softly,” Mohammed allowed, ” to avoid sending the wrong signals about our intentions, which are entirely peaceful”.

The Space Roadmap mandates NASRDA to develop a full-scale launch vehicle by 2025. But the Agency also has research, training and instructional programmes that are contingent upon rocket development.

This includes a miniature satellite programme, Mohammed noted, whose centrepiece is CanSat— a satellite the size of a soft drink can. It is being developed, with Japanese collaborators, for atmospheric and space weather research.

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