South Africa, Russia sign agreement on earth observation


South frica and Russia have signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on collaboration in the area of earth observation. The signing took place in Moscow, yesterday, as part of President Jacob Zuma’s official visit there. Signing on behalfof SA was Dr Sandile Malinga, the acting Chief Executive of the South African National Space Agency (SANSA). Professor Alex Perminov, the President of the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos), signed for Russia.

The Department of Science and Technology says the MoU allows for South Africa and Russia, through their respective space agencies, to collaborate through joint initiatives in the area of earth observation, “and also in other important areas of space science and technology.” This paves the way for South Africa to access historic Russian satellite data collected over southern Africa, thus complimenting and adding to the richness of archived satellite imagery, the DST adds.

Highlighting the importance of the MoU, Malinga pointed out that it would benefit remote sensing applications geared towards addressing South Africa’s socio-economic problems that rely on the use of such datasets. “This initiative will certainly help bolster our extensive archive of satellite imagery collected over the Southern African Development Community region and facilitate the development of human capital in South Africa,” Malinga said in a DST statement.

Minister of Science and Technology Naledi Pandor was present when the MoU was signed. She added “striking international partnerships of this nature bode well for South Africa’s standing and positioning in the global space arena and, on the regional front, place us as leaders in the strategic area of remote sensing.”

Also in Russia were ministers of state security Siyabonga Cwele and defence Lindiwe Sisulu. It is not clear if they signed any similar agreements. It is known that South Africa’s intelligence community is still hankering after a space-based reconnaissance capability. Treasury’s Estimates of National Expenditure (ENE) noted in February Defence Intelligence receives just 1.9% of the defence department’s total budget, but that this has rise above inflation since early 2006. The ENE says the spending increases – from R353.6 million in 2006/07 to R698.9 million in 2012/13, at an average annual rate of 12% – are “due to the planned investment in and development of a strategic information collection capability”. That has previously been identified as code for a reconnaissance satellite.

The Engineering News and the Mail & Guardian (M&G) both reported in 2008 that erstwhile defence minister Mosiuoa Lekota cancelled an order placed in Russia for such a satellite, worth some R2 billion, by former DI head, Lt General Moreti “Mojo” Motau in 2006 or 2007. Motau is now Sisulu’s military advisor. The M&G added that it was “unclear why Lekota cancelled the contract”, but hinted that Motau had signed the deal without authorisation.

The paper added the cost of the satellite including ground facilities and launch cost would have been between US$150-million and US$300-million (between R2,2-billion and R2,4-billion). “The expenditure is recurrent, as satellites have a lifespan of only a few years.” Sisulu in August last year said the South African National Defence Force “is involved in a number of highly classified projects to enhance the strategic intelligence collection capability of South Africa.”

Former Science & Technology minister Mosibudi Mangena has previously argued SA needs its own proprietary satellites and cannot rely on commercial machines for imagery as they may not always be available and may not offer coverage of the area of interest. In addition, he warned that relying on satellites owned by others had national security implications – the operator and likely their national intelligence establishment would have insight into strategic South African government decision-making.

His successor, Naledi Pandor last week confirmed SA’s ambition to enter the space launch business and Cabinet in February approved the acquisition of a majority stake in the Sun Space and Information Systems company that built the R26 million, 81kg Sumbandilasat low-earth orbit earth observation satellite for Pador’s department. It is not known of the “strategic information collection capability” noted in the ENE will be acquired domestically or from abroad.