We have always wondered what the Space program in Libya looked like

The Libyan government established the Libyan Centre for Remote Sensing and Space Science (LCRSS) in 1989; in response to the requirements of the Libyan society in achieving sustainable development using modern technologies. LCRSS specialises in remote sensing, space, seismic science, and astronomy research. Its headquarters is in Tripoli, and it has branches in different regions in Libya. LCRSS is a specialised reference and advisory body at the local, regional and international levels, qualifying it to play a pivotal role in comprehensive development programs.

During the second GMES and Africa forum recently held in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, Space in Africa met with Dr Akram Al Kaseh, the Director-General of the Libyan Centre for Remote Sensing and Space Science, to discuss Libya’s space journey and their plans.

Tell me about the Libyan Centre for Remote Sensing and Space Science.

In 2008, the government wanted to implement an actual space agency. We also wanted to own our first satellite after implementing the DRS (Direct receiving station) from Spot between 2005 and 2007. We wanted to take it one step further, so we wanted to own a satellite. We sent around 18 engineers to Taiwan because, at that time, the Taiwan Space agency offered to train them for two months in exchange for purchasing satellite technology from them. In 2009, we were still discussing Taiwan when two more companies tried to sell us satellite technology. One company in Belgium, and the University of Surrey, UK. The best offer at the time was the University of Surrey, UK. Everything was okay and was almost approved until the uprising happened in 2011. Unfortunately, we couldn’t proceed afterwards, and even up until now, there are still political issues and instability making most of them have reservations about working and investing with us.

I’m sure the unfortunate incident must have set you back a couple of years. How have you been able to bounce back after the uprising?

Honestly, we tried to create new networks and partnerships with other institutions regarding space technology other than GIS technology or remote sensing applications.  We have been able to undergo capacity building programmes with ISNET, a Pakistani organisation. No solid project has kicked off yet, but they offer capacity building training to 22 Islam countries every year worldwide. Each year, at least one or two engineers attend the training. But other than that, there’s no actual project. That’s why I spoke with Dr Tidianne, whom I know from GMES and Africa, that they have another department related to satellite technology.

So you’re looking to start a project for satellite technology?

We are still looking for capacity building programmes for the engineers because, as I mentioned before, we have had some training in the past, but we have not been able to create a synergy. The guys that trained in Taiwan, for instance, have gone overseas for a Masters or a PhD degree. So we are looking to start from scratch again. We once had a DRS, but it has been destroyed, and we will need to build a new one because the technology is now obsolete. Airbus, for instance, has spots 6 and 7, and they have layered satellites built with state-of-the-art technologies, which is considered a significant upgrade from spots 4 and 5, so even if we tried to fix the DRS, it would not work with the new satellites. In 2004/2005, our DRS was number 26 globally for spot imaging.

Are there plans to build a new DRS?

Yes, of course. As I told you, but due to the political instability in the country, we have not been able to make much progress. However, even when we exchanged governments, they knew that our centre is dedicated to space technology. We request it almost every year, so we believe that sooner or later, they will grant our request will, and we will be able to have our satellite and receiving stations.

I’m sure it will be a remote sensing satellite when you eventually have a satellite. 

Yes, yes. That was an issue before we got any support from the government. I cannot remember the year, but there was a debate around whether Libya should have a communications satellite or a remote sensing satellite. Eventually, we settled on the obvious choice. We also plan to work on cube satellites in the future. 

Do you work with universities and other learning institutions?

Yeah, we have a kind of agreement with some institutions, but they’re primarily research-based. If some students have ideas/projects to be implemented or want to run some analysis, we collaborate with them to support them by supplying them with the necessary data.

Tell me about Astronomy in Libya as well.

We have three major centres, the main one (remote sensing centre) in the capital, Tripoli. The astronomy centre is in Benghazi, around a thousand kilometres away from the nation’s capital, and we have about 35 people working there. The main objective of the Astronomy centre is to give reports on astronomical phenomena, for example, in the event of an eclipse. Also, they supply other institutions, especially Islamic institutions, with information like when the month will start or when we have Islamic events like Ramadan; they provide the precise day or time for such events.

What is your annual budget?

The Libyan Authority oversees the Centre for Scientific Research, which is under the Ministry of Higher Education and has got at the moment about 22 research centres, including our centre. The government allocates money to the Libyan Authority for scientific research each year. It is divided among its 22 centres based on the applications and projects they’re supposed to implement. Unfortunately, in the last few years, the government almost eliminated the funding due to the financial crisis resulting from the 2011 uprising. So at the moment, we do research locally based on satellite data and some other small projects. These projects are also without budgets. We had a few projects with some institutions like the Authority of Water in Libya, where they paid us USD 50,000 to implement the project for them. We are currently partnering with the OSS (Sahara and Sahel Observatory) consortia on the GMES and Africa project, so we get some funds from engaging in some activities.

What’s the private sector like in Libya?

Scarce. Government participation in the Libyan space ecosystem is around 80-85%.

Overall, how many people work in the centre?

All three centres have a total staff of 200. The main centre in the capital has 125 people working there, the Astronomy centre has 35, and the Seismology centre has the rest. For Seismology, we have the Libyan national network with 15 base stations. Libya is not very active in Seismology, but we still monitor the activities, and the data centre is located 10 kilometres south of the capital. 

What are your plans for next year?

Just before we came here, I had a meeting with all my departmental heads, and we planned to prepare for next year by doing lots of scientific research on GIS applications. In addition, for the other space technology-related departments, I had a meeting with them. Before I became director, I was a scientific research lead in the space technology department, and I have requested to meet with them for the last week in December. As a result, I assigned five scientists to prepare a roadmap for next year.