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Impoverished Nigeria joins space age with satellite

Orb to monitor soil erosion and water resources

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Russian Kosmos-3M with six satellites blasts off at Plesetsk Cosmodrome.

Russian Kosmos-3M with six satellites blasts off at Plesetsk Cosmodrome.

ITAR-Tass, Associated Press

LAGOS, Nigeria — A Nigerian satellite blasted into orbit Saturday aboard a Russian rocket, propelling one of the poorest nations on earth into space for the first time.

Millions of Nigerians watched the launch — at Russia's Plesetsk Cosmodrome — on live television.

"It makes me proud to be a Nigerian," said Prosper Sunday, a 27-year-old security guard in Lagos. "It shows our nation is progressing. We've joined the space age."

The government plans to use the $13 million satellite to monitor water resources, soil erosion, deforestation and disasters, space agency spokesman Solomon Olaniyi told The Associated Press.

It will be used to watch military facilities and the country's oil pipelines and infrastructure. Nigeria is one of the world's largest exporters of oil, but thieves siphon off hundreds of thousands of barrels everyday.

"It's a great feat for Nigeria," said Joseph Akinyede of the National Space Research and Development Agency, based in the capital, Abuja. "We have a footprint in space."

On Earth, Nigeria is struggling to provide 132 million citizens with clean water, basic health services and education.

Most villages outside state capitals have no running water or electricity, 70 percent of the country's roads are dirt tracks, and over 30 percent of the population is illiterate. Per-capita income is about $290, and less than 1 percent have telephones, according to the World Bank.

"The satellite is a waste of money," said 21-year-old Gabriel Mordi, selling mobile phone cards on a dusty street in Lagos, a city that is a colossal sprawl of millions of rusting tin-roof shacks and palm trees. "They should be helping the poor. Most people here are just struggling to find something to eat."

In the northern city of Kano, barber Adamu Ahmed, 27, who was shaving a man in a blue-flowing robe on a sweltering street, said he was unaware of the launch since he had no radio or TV.

"They haven't told us much about space," he said. "I've heard of people going to the moon, but I don't know how they got there."

The word for satellite is "tauraru danadam," which means "human moon" in the local Hausa language.

The Nigerian government hopes one day to build and launch its own satellites.

The NigeriaSat-1 was produced by British-based company, Surrey Satellite Technology, with the help of Nigerian technicians trained in Britain, Olaniyi said.

The Russian Kosmos-3M rocket that lifted off from Plesetsk Cosmodrome with NigeriaSat-1 carried five other satellites with it — two from Russia, and one each from Turkey, Britain and South Korea.

A team of 15 Nigerian scientists and engineers will control their country's satellite from a ground station in Abuja during its five to seven year life-span, Olaniyi said.