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Schoolgirls prepare to launch Africa’s first private satellite

Africa's first privately owned satellite will be launched in the United States this year by 14 South African schoolgirls.

The girls successfully launched test satellites in Cape Town on 10 January, the culmination of the second phase of a project to encourage young South African women to take up careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

The project is a collaboration between South Africa’s Meta Economic Development Organisation and Morehead State University in the US. The first phase involved mobile laboratory workshops, which MEDO says have reached 120 pupils.

“Currently STEM-focused careers are dominated by men, thus the Women in STEM programme aims to inspire young women to pursue careers that are considered as non-traditional female paths,” said Judi Sandrock, MEDO chief executive, in a statement.

The third phase will see the launch of a full-sized satellite in the second quarter of 2016 in the US, the organisers say. The girls will be responsible for conceptualising and constructing the payload of MEDOsat1. It is not yet clear what exactly the satellite will do.

All participants in the programme will be able to analyse and work with the data the satellite produces in orbit.

South African science minister Naledi Pandor has often bemoaned the shortage of women in science. The Department of Science and Technology has introduced measures such as women-only research chairs to remedy the situation.

South Africa’s official opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, has welcomed the news, saying that similar initiatives could ameliorate youth unemployment.

“It has been the DA’s contention that skills development in the science and innovation space should be the apex priority of the minister of science and technology, Naledi Pandor, in an effort to create jobs for the millions of young South Africans,” Annelie Lotriet, the DA’s shadow science minister, said in a statement.

The Young Women in STEM project will continue until 2020. A satellite launch in South Africa is planned for a later stage.