SA, Brazil and India agree to joint satellite programme at trilateral summit


South Africa, India and Brazil have agreed to jointly develop a satellite to be launched into orbit for purposes of detecting natural disasters and for scientific research.

Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva told a media briefing at the end of the latest India-Brazil-SA (IBSA) summit meeting that the bloc will develop two satellites. “The first for climate studies and the second to observe the earth,” he said. “They will benefit IBSA countries as well as other friendly nations”.

Speaking at the same briefing SA President Jacob Zuma said he saw “this initiative as an opportunity to reinforce our shared development objectives. A joint satellite could lend support to areas like agriculture, education, energy, health, information and communications, trade and transport.”

Zuma said SA was “particularly excited about the proposal for an IBSA satellite project. It offers an opportunity to expand our cooperation into advanced technology, increasing our collective scientific and engineering capacity. We see this initiative as an opportunity to reinforce our shared developmental objectives.

The details of the project remain obscure. The Engineering News reports the space weather satellite will be built first with a planned launch date in 2012. the earth observation satellite will follow in 2014. “As yet, no budget for the programme has been released.”

The publication speculates SA will provide the satellite bus. “The bus is the term given to the basic spacecraft – that is, the structure and the control, navigation, communications and power systems – on which the actual observation imagers and systems, experiments, transponders, etc. (depending on the type of satellite) are mounted. But most of the instruments to be mounted on the bus will be provided by Brazil.
“The Earth observation satellite … is likely – although this is not yet confirmed – to carry South Africa’s MSMI imager, developed by Stellenbosch-based Sun Space & Information Systems (SunSpace) in cooperation with the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium. Both satellites will be launched by India, the only one of the IBSA countries to have the capability to launch satellites at the moment.”

Science & Technology minister Naledi Pandor last month said SA had ambitions to be a regional satellite launch hub and would re-activate apartheid-era ace rocket launch sites to fast-track a national space programme. Pandor told the Sunday Times SA had two sites, the Overberg Test Range (OTB) outside Bredasdorp, and Houwteq near Grabouw. Pandor said the Houwteq site already had a “launch integration building” where a launch vehicle had been assembled by apartheid-era engineers. She said the facilities could be used to kick-start a space programme that would focus on human development rather than on defence, the paper said.

Her comments to the Sunday broadsheet followed similar observations made in February. Speaking at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research’s (CSIR) Satellite Applications Centre (SAC) at Hartebeeshoek, west of Pretoria, at an event at which a live video feed from South Africa’s SumbandilaSat microsatellite was publicly shown for the first time, she said SA intended to strengthen its technological and space skills. “Sumbandila is a very significant development for us. Our new satellite provides us with a number of cost and competitive advantages.”

Last July Nomfuneko Majaja, the Chief Director Advanced Manufacturing Space Affairs at the Department of Trade and Industry told the National Assembly that “it was hoped that SA would be in a position to be a launching state in five to ten years time.” It is understood Denel Dynamics has been approached to build the required rockets.

Pandor told the Sunday Times that in “starting up a space launch capability there are two issues that are of importance: in terms of the actual launch vehicle, do we build on what has been done in the past or look for an alternative, (perhaps) more cost-effective option? Can we use the support infrastructure developed as part of the previous launch vehicle programme?”

She added to the paper that SA was well advanced in satellite development and management, and had the world-renowned SAC. “The potential for South Africa to become a regional space hub is immense. We have already proved that we have the capability for the development, manufacture and operation of satellites” through the SunSpace company.
“There is certainly a need for an indigenous African (space science) capability, and other African countries are waking up to this realisation,” Pandor said. South Africa, Nigeria, Algeria and Kenya recently formed the African Resource Management Constellation, which plans to launch at least three more satellites for earth observation.

SunSpace’s Ron Olivier said a rejuvenated national space programme was good news for the country’s growing scientific and engineering sectors, which were eager to compete on the international market. He said investing in more satellites would entrench South Africa’s lead over African countries in the space race. “The more satellites you have, the more you are able to revisit (orbit over) the same space and the more data you can make available,” Olivier said.

But South Africa’s contribution was likely to be in the niche market and not space exploration.
“The amount of investment that is required to do outer space missions on your own is just mind boggling. We will be a niche player. Eventually, as you grow the space capability you will be able to develop payloads and assist on international collaboration, like missions to Mars, but right now that is pretty far into the future,” he told the paper.

SAC head Raoul Hodges said South Africa was already a world leader in earth observation data and the analysis of satellite images. “For years we’ve been buying the data from international sites. Now we have our own,” he said. Extending the programme to incorporate satellite launching would add to South Africa’s expertise, Hodges said.
“The general public may see a space programme as going to Mars. But for me it’s about reaching out and giving a social benefit back to the country whereby we can develop projects out of earth observation data.” Commenting on Pandor’s plans to revisit old launch sites, Hodges said a satellite launch programme would require massive investment “but there’s no doubt the technology and the engineers exist”.

Pic: An artists’ impression of SA’s Sumbandilasat