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Italian space centre in Kenya attracts parliament’s interest

An Italian space centre at Kenya’s coast continues to attract the interest of Kenyan legislators demanding that the facility contribute more to the country’s economy.

Launch of the Ariel 5 satellite at the San Marco platform, Kenya, on 15 October 1974.

Launch of the Ariel 5 satellite at the San Marco platform, Kenya, on 15 October 1974.

On several sessions, Kenya’s parliament has discussed the agreement between Kenya and Italy which led to the establishing of an Italian space centre in 1964 near the town of Malindi.

The centre is officially known as the Luigi Broglio Space Centre (BSC) but is popularly referred to as “San Marco.”

Legislators say the 50 year old agreement needs to be renegotiated for Kenya to gain a greater share of the centre’s revenue. According to legislators, the San Marco space centre earns, “billions of dollars” from services it provides to foreign space agencies and satellite companies.

In addition, legislators want more Kenyan citizens in San Marco’s top management.

Though the San Marco station has been operational for 50 years, it has maintained a very low public profile. Few people know that satellites and rockets were launched from Kenyan territory between 1967 and 1988. The San Marco site is the world’s first launch base located near the Equator. Scientists say that rocket launches close to the equator result in lower fuel consumption compared to launches that take place away from the equator.

The Luigi Broglio Space Centre consists of at least three platforms at sea and a ground station on the mainland. The offshore platforms were built by the oil industry before they were converted for use in space research. The three platforms are San Marco, Santa Rita I and Santa Rita II.

Nine satellites and 20 sounding rockets were launched from San Marco facilities between 1964 and 1988. Of the nine satellites, four were Italian, four from the US and one from the UK. Sounding rockets (research rockets) are designed to take measurements and perform scientific experiments at sub-orbital levels (50km – 1,500km altitude).

Uhuru satellite

On Jamhuri Day 1970, the San Marco space centre launched the “Uhuru” satellite. Built by NASA, Uhuru was the first satellite launched for purposes of X-ray astronomy. The satellite mapped the universe in X-ray wavelengths and discovered evidence of black holes. The Uhuru satellite was the first American spacecraft launched by another country.

Operations at San Marco since 1988

No rocket launches have taken place at San Marco since 1988, at least, none that have been publicly acknowledged.

The station is now operated by the Italian Space Agency in cooperation with the University of Rome and the European Space Agency (ESA). The Malindi site is used to track NASA, European and other satellites and supports the launches of rockets by ESA (Ariane) and those of China’s space agency (the Shenzou program).

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