Students make their mark as future-generation space leaders

For Kumbirai Nicholas Matingo, a final-year surveying and geomatics student at Zimbabwe’s Midlands State University (MSU), the building of a satellite ground-station at his learning institution – the first at a local university – will count as one of his lifetime achievements.

The ground-station project that is under way was made possible after the Students for the Exploration and Development of Space (SEDS-Zimbabwe) club at the MSU received a satellite ground-station kit in June 2022 from the Space Generation Advisory Council (SGAC), a global non-governmental organisation seeking to nurture the next generation of space leaders.

It is hoped that the satellite ground-station will be operational by September this year. The major objective of the initiative is to assist local farmers within the students’ community to plan better and have good yields by using and leveraging the power of earth observation data. The satellite station project was made possible after Matingo joined the SGAC in April 2021 and became the founder of a space club at MSU in June 2021.

In an interview with University World News, Matingo said the kit will be receiving satellite images from the United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) satellites in near real-time with the hope to tap into commercial satellites in the future to gather valuable information for farmers in their community.

Project will benefit farmers

Matingo said they also intend to use the station to help communities forecast and prepare for disasters that occur from time to time. He said the project will enable them to educate young people about why space is important and why young people also need to be involved in sustainable development through space.

“The satellite ground-station kit was acquired after we applied for the global satellite tracking initiative, a project to bring space to young people around the world that was pioneered by the SGAC. We were fortunate enough to have been among the 10 participants selected from 200 applicants for the initiative. The equipment came from SGAC through its project partner SatNOGS,” he said.

“Our aim is to provide Zimbabwean farmers with earth observation information through data and we envision creating start-ups that leverage on space for the betterment of the economy, environment, and society.”

Matingo said he has learned a lot from the SGAC. He is now the council’s national point of contact for Zimbabwe working to promote and build youth in space initiatives and programmes that are aimed at sustainable development. He said it is easy for students to join the SGAC. Just visit the website and register to become a member.

Dornald Mutasa Mhlanga is a student who has been involved in hackathons on earth conducted by the United States Space Agency (NASA).

Mhlanga, who is studying towards an honours degree in applied physics at the National University of Science and Technology (NUST) in Zimbabwe, said that, as a first-year student in 2020, he participated in a six-month online course on astronomy, ‘Exploring Space and Time’, at the University of Arizona in the US that had more than 100,000 participating students.

Big plans for space exploration

He said interaction with his peers from around the world led to his participation in the 2021 NASA International Space Apps Challenge (Space Apps), the largest annual space and science hackathon in the world.

It is aimed at coders, scientists, designers, storytellers, makers, builders, technologists and others in cities around the world, where teams engage NASA’s free and open data to address real-world problems on earth and in space and solve the challenges.

Mhlanga has, so far, designed project prototypes for a rocket and a near-space exploration high-altitude balloon. He also designed a drone prototype. He founded a space laboratory, The Guru’s Lab, a research lab for young scientists whose mission, he says, is to make Zimbabwe the hub of space exploration in Africa by 2025.

His work has not gone unnoticed at NASA following the increasing number of students in Zimbabwe interested in space projects due to his initiatives.

“After I participated last year, NASA promoted me to be a 2022 global space apps mentor. Next year, I see myself as CEO of a space-exploration company in Zimbabwe. I will start that company. The work that I am doing with Guru lab is in preparation for launching the company,” he said.

Few women in the field

Ruvarashe Kambila, a fourth-year aeronautical engineering student at the University of Zimbabwe told University World News that, when she started pursuing the aeronautical engineering field, her vision was focused on manned aircraft but, with time, she learned how wide the aviation industry was. As a result, a new passion started to grow.

“I started to pursue drone technology concurrent with my degree. I joined the University of Zimbabwe drone club and I have gained much knowledge on the engineering part of drones and hope to contribute to making drone technology as important as manned aircraft,” she said.

Kambila said there are a few women in her field – five in her class of 24. She said this is due to the African belief that engineering is for men and, as a result, most potential female engineers have been discouraged from a very young age to pursue this already male-dominated path.

“I wanted to be a pilot, but I was told people who wear spectacles cannot be pilots, which is not true. It was only applicable in the defence field, not the commercial field. I then thought, if I cannot fly, then probably I could design the aircraft, or maybe manage their day-to-day operation, hence I chose to pursue aeronautical engineering,” she said.

Students excel in the field

Space students in Zimbabwe have been making a mark in the field. In November 2022, the state-run Chronicle newspaper reported that Professor Mqhele Dlodlo, the vice-chancellor of the NUST, singled out 23-year-old Tafadzwa Banga, who graduated with a Bachelor of Science (Honours) degree in industrial and manufacturing engineering after he was selected as one of 10 Africans to participate in the African space industry 2021 class of under 30-year-olds.

Banga is the founder of the Young Inventors Organisation at NUST. In 2018, he led a team of students from the organisation who won a regional hackathon competition in South Africa. In 2020, he also led a team of engineering students who launched a student-designed electronic payload into near space using a high-altitude balloon, which made a significant impact on the awareness of space education and breast cancer.

Dlodlo said Banga was a potential future leader of the Zimbabwe National Geospatial and Space Agency, or ZINGSA, “due to what we have seen on the ground”.