SA looking at space launch capability


South Africa’s first steps toward better positioning the country as a world player in space comes with a Request for Information (RfI) regarding aerospace and engineering technical expertise relating to launch capabilities.

Issued by SANSA (SA National Space Agency) the RfI points out it is a means of technical discovery and information gathering to determine and identify capabilities in the local aerospace and engineering sectors.

The RfI follows a Department of Science and Innovation (DSI) study to determine the long term possibility of a South African launch capability becoming reality. SANSA, according to the RfI which closes Friday week (25 September), is assisting the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI), headed by Minister Blade Nzimande, on gathering information on South African capabilities.

Information is wanted on orbital launch vehicles, orbital launch support services, orbital launch business services, orbital launch ground infrastructure, sub-orbital launch vehicles (sounding rockets), sub-orbital launch support services, sub-orbital launch business services and sub-orbital launch ground infrastructure.

SANSA, according to the RfI, is seeking responses from capable and qualified organisations in the South African space engineering industry sector. Respondents should provide a comprehensive written summary addressing capabilities of the system/subsystem/component they design, manufacture and/or use.

South Africa previously had space launch capabilities and launched several space rockets (without useful payloads) in 1989 and 1990. It was planning to launch the Greensat earth observation satellite before funding dried up. Much of South Africa’s space launch capabilities, including the launch pad at Overberg, were destroyed in the 1990s as a requirement to joining the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) in 1995.

SANSA’s official history is short, dating back to the SA National Space Agency Act on 2008 and the agency’s inception in December two years later. Its operations are split into four programme areas – earth observation, space engineering, space operations and space science.

SANSA’s interest in space launch capabilities comes as it makes progress in developing a Space Infrastructure Hub. SANSA was awarded R4,47 billion in additional funding over the next three years to develop the hub as part of government’s Sustainable Infrastructure Development Symposium (SIDS) initiative.

Nzimande this week briefed media on the Space Infrastructure Hub, which will help build an indigenous space capability to service South African needs.

“The project will position space data as a tool for sustainable development, addressing government’s national priorities and for commercial use in thematic areas including remote sensing, navigation, and space sciences,” he said.

The Hub will involve construction of satellites for Earth observation and science missions; a new ground segment; an expanded data segment; a new data visualisation centre; activation of the satellite based augmentation system over Southern Africa; development of products and services for use across all spheres of government and human capital development and training, Nzimande said.

The Space Infrastructure Hub includes other projects where separate ring-fenced funding has  been secured largely through the DSI. These are an upgrade of the Houwteq facility (R75 million); establishment of a concurrent engineering design facility (R25 million); establishment of a new space weather centre (R90 million); establishment of an Earth Observation Data Cube facility (R12.5 million); and a research, development and innovation fund for products and services developmeny(R60 million).

Nzimande said to unlock investment funding for the Space Infrastructure Hub, four studies need to be conducted. They are  a bankable feasibility study; a market analysis study; a socio-economic case study and a Space Industrial Hub Programme implementation plan.

SANSA Chief Executive Dr Val Munsami said previously  “The Space Infrastructure Hub marks a significant milestone for the South African space sector to build an indigenous space capability to service the needs of the country. This project will position space data as a tool for sustainable development, addressing government’s national priorities and for commercial use in thematic areas such as remote sensing, navigation and space sciences.”

The global space sector was valued at $360 billion in 2018 and is projected to grow at an annual average of 5.6% reaching $558 billion by 2026. The African space industry is currently worth $7.37 billion and is projected to grow to over $10.29 billion in the next five years, according to the 2019 African Space Industry Annual Report. In a 2017/18 study commissioned by the Department of Science and Innovation, South Africa had  30 space companies in the upstream segment with a turnover of R308 million, R114 million of which was for the export market. Turnover of the downstream segment was more impressive, accounting for R205 billion, inclusive of satellite telecommunications. Savings accrued to government in 2017/18 through the use of satellite technology is estimated to be around R3 billion, SANSA said.

SANSA aims to ensure the South African space sector is developed to match optimum growth experienced across  the globe. “Our business case shows with every Rand we spend, we can recoup about R10 in benefits,” said Munsami. “If we spend an estimated R10 billion in the next 10 years, direct and indirect benefits would be around R100 billion. Our primary vision going forward is to position ourselves for the African Space Programme to benefit all 55 countries on the continent.”

During this week’s briefing, Munsami pointed out  SANSA has Africa’s only satellite design, development and manufacturing capability and  the biggest and most developed ground segment on the continent, with 50 antennas at Hartebeesthoek and 20 more being built. It operates Africa’s only space weather centre and has its largest satellite imagery catalogue.

Munsami said the new space weather centre will be ready in two to three years’ time. He explained the idea is to provide space weather information for all aircraft across the whole of Africa as the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) passed new regulations stating before a pilot takes off he or she must take into account space weather as part of the flight plan due to communications disruption, navigation interference and excessive radiation dosage threats from space weather events.

In addition to the Space Infrastructure Hub, Munsami said South Africa is co-operating with other African countries, particularly on the African Resource Management Constellation satellite network and is working with the Southern African Development Community (SADC) to develop an SADC space programme, which has to go through ministerial processes first.