It’s a small step for aerospace but a big one for Tunisia: the first home-made satellite was launched into space on Monday and entered orbit, opening up new local opportunities for young Tunisian engineers who are moving abroad in droves.
Tunisia is the first country in the Maghreb and the sixth African country to build its own satellite, according to the specialist website Space in Africa.
« Challenge One », designed for the Internet of Things, to transmit data from connected objects, was built by a team from the Tunisian telecommunications group TelNet, most of whose locally trained engineers are between 25 and 30 years old.
« It’s a source of pride to have been part of this project, » Khalil Chiha, 27, who trained at the national electronics school in Sfax (central Tunisia), told AFP.
« We are very moved, after three years of hard work, » said Haifa Triki, a 28-year-old engineer who followed the launch from Tunis. « We made a lot of sacrifices, but it was worth it.
- « National will » –
The rocket took off Monday morning from Baikonur, Kazakhstan, followed live from Tunis by Tunisian President Kais Saied, who joined engineers and journalists at TelNet headquarters. The satellite then entered orbit at 11.25am (10.25am GMT).
Several thousand engineers leave Tunisia each year to work abroad.
The Challenge One team was supported by expatriate Tunisian engineers, one of whom took part in the recent NASA mission to Mars.
« It’s really a dream come true, » Anis Youssef, project manager at TelNet, told AFP a few days before the launch.
Thermometers or connected pollution sensors, location chips or humidity sensors: this experimental satellite is intended to collect and transmit the data collected by these devices in order to have access to them in real time even in an area of the Earth without internet coverage.
It aims to meet the growing need for satellite connections, as less than 20% of the world’s surface is covered by the terrestrial internet network.
« It’s a big problem for agriculture and connected vehicles, » Ahmed El Fadhel, a Belgium-based aerospace engineer and president of the Tunisian Space Association Tunsa, told AFP.
- Constellation –
While aerospace is booming in the Arab world and in Africa, where 11 out of 55 African countries have already launched satellites, « the club of those who make them is quite closed, » Fadhel said.
In the Maghreb, Algeria, which has a 100% Algerian satellite project « ALSA3 », has already launched six mainly observation satellites developed by foreign groups, and Morocco has launched two Earth observation satellites, with the Franco-Italian consortium Thales Alenia Space and the European aerospace giant Airbus.
Challenge One is one of the first to use in space a data transmission protocol already in use on earth, LoRa, which allows existing objects to be connected via satellite by changing only the antenna.
TelNet hopes to launch a constellation of more than 20 satellites within three years, in partnership with other Arab and African countries, to exploit the technology commercially.
« This opens the way to the opening of an innovative service for the region, in a field that is expanding rapidly, » Mohamed Frikha, CEO of TelNet, told AFP.
Beyond the technological advance, he emphasised « the opening of local employment opportunities for Tunisian engineers ».
For Ms. Triki, « job opportunities exist in Tunisia, the problem is to make young engineers want to stay » in a country where the use of a simple drone and various technological equipment is still prohibited by the security authorities, and where importing components is complicated.
« The ecosystem must follow to motivate young people, to have other companies (…) but also better social conditions, » she said.
Tunisia, hit hard by the social fallout of the pandemic, is paralysed by a political crisis and affected by numerous social mobilisations.