The Egyptian satellite Egyptsat-A was lifted off by a Soyuz-2-1b/Fregat rocket, on February 21, 2019, from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. It was Russia’s first satellite launch of 2019. The Soyuz-2 rockets are modernized vehicles based on the Soyuz-U and its predecessors, with digital flight controls and upgraded engines.
The process was closely watched by aerospace and other authorities in Cairo and Moscow, especially in light of two previous failures.
EgyptSat-A is a high-resolution Earth observation satellite developed by the Russian corporation RKK Energia on behalf of Egypt’s National Authority for Remote Sensing and Space Sciences (NARSS).
Higher Education Minister Abdel-Ghaffar said in an interview with Sputnik news agency that EgyptSat-A is a significantly upgraded model of its predecessor, equipped with more sophisticated and precise imaging and tracking technologies. The data it transmits will improve meteorological forecasting and assist in the development of early warning systems for natural disasters such as floods and landslides.
In 2007, the Egyptian government made its first attempt to acquire its own high-resolution surveillance satellite with the launch of the EgyptSat-1 spacecraft built in Ukraine.
The satellite was launched from Baikonur on April 17, 2007. However, the contact with it was lost in 2010. Mubarak’s government kept the scientific setback secret for three months before details leaked out. Egyptian specialists claimed then that this was an experimental project with an expected satellite’s service life of no more than three years.
EgyptSat-1 was capable of photographing sites on earth and its launch came after Egypt awarded a tender to Ukraine to construct the satellite. Under the agreement, 60 Egyptian scientists were trained by Ukraine, with the aim of Egypt developing the capability to operate the satellite independently.
Although Egypt apparently continued working with the Ukrainian KB Yuzhnoe design bureau on a follow-on project, Cairo received a bid from Moscow to supply a state-of-the-art “eye in the sky.” In 2009, after about four years of negotiations, Egypt awarded a contract to Russia for the development of a high-resolution imaging satellite.
In Moscow, the project was officially handled by Rosoboroneksport, a government-owned company specialized in exports of military technology. However, the actual development of the spacecraft was delegated to RKK Energia, based in Korolev near Moscow and world-renowned for its leading role in the nation’s manned space flight.
RKK Energia's imaging satellite was originally known as E-Star, but it was eventually re-christened EgyptSat-2. The development of the satellite coincided with a major political upheaval in Egypt; however, the nation’s military clearly managed to fully fund the project.
A Soyuz-U rocket carrying the Egyptian observation satellite EgyptSat-2 was launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on April 16, 2014.
The 300 million Egyptian pounds (nearly $43 million) EgyptSat 2 is owned by Egypt’s National Authority for Remote Sensing and Space Sciences. The satellite was expected to have an operational lifetime of 11 years.
Russia also trained Egyptian engineers to control the satellite from a ground station near Cairo. The Moscow-based NPK BARL concern announced the completion of the center in October 2011.
The Russian-built EgyptSat-2 satellite was designed to provide high-resolution imagery for the Egyptian military and other government agencies in the country. The development and launch campaign for EgyptSat-2 has been conducted largely in secret. Only one visual of the operational spacecraft was released to the public by its manufacturer RKK Energia, after the successful launch.
In its overall architecture, the satellite appeared similar to the latest-generation Earth-watching satellites developed in the West. The satellite could discern details as small as one meter on the Earth’s surface. In addition to regular photos, the satellite's optics could produce infrared imagery.
In April 2015, the EgyptSat-2 completely failed in orbit, but there was no official confirmation or denial from official sources. In 2016, a joint Egyptian-Russian committee revealed that Egyptsat-2 had been unresponsive to commands since mid-April 2015.
The EgyptSat-A Project
EgyptSat-A was built as a replacement for EgyptSat-2. The compensation from a Russian insurance agency partly paid for its production, which cost approximately $100 million.
On August 13, 2018, Egypt and China signed mutual letters for the implementation of the EgyptSat-A satellite. The Chinese grant hits $45 million for the remote sensing Earth observation satellite built by the Russian RSC Energia.
According to Russian press reports, EgyptSat-A has improved performance capabilities compared to the failed EgyptSat-2. In particular, an improved electro-optical system and onboard control systems, high-speed radio links and solar panels with increased efficiency.
RSC Energia produced the vast majority of components for EgyptSat-A, compared to EgyptSat-2 where 60 percent of the components were manufactured in Egypt.
Egypt has decided to join the world space club, and the decision to build and launch the EgyptSat-A satellite is a significant step to achieve this strategic goal.
The Egyptian satellite program has both scientific and military implications. Egypt highlighted the civilian aspects of the satellites, but the EgyptSat-2 satellite was designed to provide high-resolution imagery for the Egyptian military and other government agencies in the country.
The development and launch of EgyptSat-A boost Egyptian-Russian relations which have been growing closer in many fields. The decision to stick with a Russian manufacturer and China for the Egyptian remote sensing satellite might be more about Egyptian geopolitics than just the need for a reliable satellite imaging system.