‘They call us crazy’: a trip to Ethiopia’s first space observatory

Multi-million dollar facility offers excellent views of Orion’s Belt – and opportunities to tackle climate change and famine

With its clear skies and closeness to the equator, Ethiopia is an ideal location for space exploration. Yet for a developing country facing itsworst drought in 50 years, spending millions of dollars to look at the stars might, at first, seem frivolous.

“They call us crazy because they think we’re [only] exploring outer space and gazing at the stars. But they can’t see the bigger picture,” says Abinet Ezra of the Ethiopian Space Science Society.

Sitting in a roadside café near the Addis Ababa Institute of Technology, Ezra explains that the “bigger picture” means using space research to expand the economy, improve agriculture, fight climate change and create jobs.

The Ethiopian Space Science Society, which has recruited 10,000 members since being launched in 2004 by three aspiring astronomers, has recently opened east Africa’s only space observatory on the 3,200-metre summit of Entoto, overlooking Addis Ababa.

The multi-million dollar Entoto Observatory and Research Centre has become one of the prime places to view Orion’s Belt – which appears larger and more pronounced here than from other parts of the northern hemisphere.

The society wooed a series of government insiders and private donors, including the Saudi-Ethiopian billionaire Sheikh al Amoudi, to fund its research and pay for the observatory – although the government took over running costs in March.

With 10 million Ethiopians at risk of famine, this might seem extravagant. But government officials and space enthusiasts say the same thing: that space science is essential for the country’s development, whether using earth observation to improve agriculture or lowering the costs of communications through the launch of its own satellites – which it currently rents from other countries for inflated sums.

“It was our priority to convince the government – now they have been convinced,” says Dr Solomon Belay Tessema, director of the Ethiopian Space Science Society and one of its founding members.

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