Ascending to the terminal phase-8 of the proposed Kenya space sector road-map would render Kenya a pacesetter on the global space technology scene. Only a handful of nations unequivocally belong to this exclusive club. They are United States, Russia, and China. Closely behind are nations and organizations that have attained the capabilities described in phase-7. These nations routinely partner with the aforementioned 3 dominant actors in conducting human spaceflight missions. The European Space Agency (ESA), Japan, India, UK, Brazil, and South Korea are among nations in this penultimate status.
In phase 7, Kenya would utilize space transportation systems expertise evolved in the preceding phases to actualize a domestic launch capability. Such a milestone would rely heavily on the prior foundational sounding rocketry knowledge to realize a variegated lift-capability. The launch vehicle concepts initiated in phase 5 & 6 would be realized in this phase.
It is essential for Kenya to develop at least 3 different types of launch vehicles—contrasted by the payload mass they can carry to Low Earth Orbit (LEO).
The cost of launching spacecraft into orbit places exacting requirements on the mass to be hauled into space. A notable mismatch between launcher lift-capability and the transported payload mass is economically impractical. Consequently, the need for staggered options in the capability of launching payloads into orbit.
Kenya should therefore pursue the development of the following launch vehicles (capable of transferring the corresponding approximate mass to LEO). The list is ordered according to decreasing priority..
- Small-Lift launch vehicle ( <2,000 kg)
- Medium-Lift launch vehicle (2,000 – 20,000 kg)
- Heavy-Lift launch vehicle (>20,000 kg)
1. Small-Lift Launch Vehicle
The Kenyan small-lift launch vehicle (plus variants) would be primarily intended to insert payloads of up to 2,000 kg into LEO. This inaugural vehicle would not only offer an invaluable rocket technology development and proof platform; but, also meet the emerging launch needs of the inchoate domestic space sector. Most of the initial launches are likely to comprise experimental and technology-proof small satellites such as femtosatellites (< 0.1 kg), picosatellites (0.1 – 1 kg), nanosatellites (1 – 10 kg), microsatellites (10 – 100 kg) and minisatellites (100 – 500 kg) family of spacecraft.
The small-lift launch vehicle is expected to have several variants whose sophistication and lift capability would grow in tandem with maturing technology reliability. This approach will further avail a staggered launch capability option within this classification.
Apart from pursuing the traditional launchpad based approach in developing small-lift vehicles, Kenya should also explore air-launched vehicles under this classification. Air-launched vehicles are relatively smaller in size (mass) and the carrier aircraft inherently renders them partially-reusable. All these attributes translate into relatively lower launching costs. A good example is the Orbital-ATK’s Pegasus launch vehicle. Moreover, the carrier aircraft can be re-tasked to undertake other space technology and science missions such as parabolic flights, atmospheric sensing, earth observation etc.
2. Medium-Lift Launch Vehicle
With an ability to transfer payloads of 2,000kg to 20,000kg into LEO, the medium-lift launch vehicle (plus variants) will constitute the workhorse of the maturing Kenya space sector. Majority of utilitarian communication, weather, earth observation and navigation satellites fall within this payload mass range. The capability to place up to 20,000kg in LEO further facilitates ingress into subsequent functional orbits such as Polar Orbit, Medium Earth Orbit (MEO) and Geostationary Transfer Orbit (GTO).
Due to Kenya’s geographical location on the equator, reliable domestic medium-lift launch vehicles would possess unique attractiveness on the international launch market for satellites destined for Geosynchronous Earth Orbit (GEO). A requisite corresponding orbital-plane change increases as the launch location moves away from the equator—raising the cost of launching satellites destined for GEO. Therefore, Kenya’s equatorial launch costs for geostationary satellites would be relatively cheaper than those of launch sites located at higher latitudes .
As is characteristic in matured space sectors, Kenya would similarly need to pursue multiple design concepts of this vehicle category in order to cater for the wide-range of payloads and their correspondingly diverse destinations. Therefore, medium-lift vehicles (plus variants) would constitute majority of the space transportation systems required by the proposed Kenyan space sector
3. Heavy-Lift Launch Vehicle
With the ability to haul payloads heavier than 20,000kg into orbit, heavy-lift launchers are unlikely to be a priority during the technological formative stages of the Kenya space sector. The small and medium-lift vehicles should comprehensively suffice the launch needs of the nascent domestic space sector. Further, the launch needs of a matured and vibrant domestic space sector would be satiated by the other anteceding two designations of launch vehicles.
Unlike the ubiquitous small and medium-lift launch vehicles possessed by a plethora of operators; a paucity of heavy-lift vehicle configurations operated by a few entities is evident on the global space sector. Only a handful of such launch vehicles presently exist with the American Delta IV Heavy being the world’s largest capacity vehicle in operation.
A heavy-lift vehicle would be necessary when Kenya eventually ventures into human spaceflight and deep space exploration. This could be 10-30 years after ascendancy of phase-7 of the space sector road-map.
Despite the discussion above being exclusively confined to expendable launch vehicles, the proverbial challenge in space transportation has been reduction of launch costs by using reusable launch vehicles. Consequently, Kenya should embark on developing reusable launch vehicles from the onset. It is the challenge of developing reusable space vehicles that has attracted private firms such as SpaceX, Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic etc. to the space business. The Commercial Space Enterprises Promotion Council of the proposed Kenya space sector organizational framework would play a key role in attracting private commercial enterprises in the Kenyan quest for reusable launch vehicles. An early foray into the reusable launch vehicle effort would be consistent with the entrepreneurial-state ethos that we advocate for the Kenya space sector.
Activities of Phase-7 would also entail Kenya appropriately undertaking space science exploration missions targeted away from the earth i.e. moon, Mars, deep space, the Sun etc. within the sustainable development framework. Suchlike missions undertaken by developing countries like India—sent probes to Mars and the moon, provide illustrative pertinent examples.
Phase-8 of the Kenya space sector road-map is comparable to where global leaders like USA and Russia presently reside. These countries have civil space programs with disclosed annual budgets of over 5 billion dollars. Though China’s disclosed annual budget is less than 2 billion dollars it is practically a member of this club. Such funding enables these actors to conduct human spaceflight and flagship deep-space missions to destinations like Mars, Jupiter, Saturn etc. It is a level that Kenya would eventually reach but should not necessarily be a designated priority during the formative phases.