South Africa to increase focus on space


South Africa will increase its focus on the space industry, particularly with regard to sustainable development, and will look at re-establishing space launch facilities, amongst other things.

Speaking at the recent Sansa Space for National Development conference, South African National Space Agency (Sansa) CEO Dr Val Munsami said in 2017 a new strategic framework was developed for the agency, and this is awaiting Ministerial approval. “It includes the identification of the new things Sansa has to do to fulfil its mandate.”
“We have focused on, and will increase our focus on, space for sustainable development. Sources of data to monitor progress in meeting the SDGs [Sustainable Development Goals] are a big issue. We know we can make a big impact.”

Last year Patrick Ndlovu, CEO of Denel Spaceteq, said the Department of Science and Technology (DST) had launched an effort to look into re-establishing satellite launch capabilities in the Western Cape, targeting the polar orbit market. This came after engagement by international partners looking to use South Africa as a launch site. “That facility is the envy of advanced nations because of its location,” he said.

In the 1980s the Overberg Test Range in the Western Cape was used for space launches. Four South African space rockets were built, and three launched between 1989 and 1990, but without useful payloads. In the 1990s funding for South Africa’s space programme dried up and as a requirement to join the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) in 1995, South Africa was forced to destroy much of its key facilities and technologies, including the launch pad at Overberg. However, the site has retained most of its space launch capabilities, including mission control centre, radar and telemetry tracking facilities, and range safety systems.

Ndlovu noted that South Africa has the capability to design and build satellites, but not launch them. At the moment Spaceteq is working on the EOSat-1 high resolution multispectral imaging satellite, which will be used for urban planning and development, safety and security, disaster management and food security. This will go part of the way in reducing Africa’s almost complete reliance on European and American satellites. Sansa has allocated R500 million to Spaceteq to develop the satellite. EOSat-1 will have a 2.5 metre resolution imager and is planned to have a life span of seven years. Launch is scheduled for 2020. However, the programme is hampered by a lack of funding – in addition to the satellite, the ground station and launch also need to be funded. For instance a new X-band antenna will need to be built for EOSat-1.

EOSat-1 forms part of the African Resource Management Constellation (ARMC). In 2009 South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria and Algeria agreed to contribute at least one satellite to the constellation – Nigeria has already made its contribution.

Other African countries are also interested in developing nanosatellites with South Africa – students from the Space Science Institute of the Pan African University will visit South Africa next year to further pursue this.

The Department of Science and Technology and the Department of Environmental Affairs are also developing a constellation of nine nano-satellites will form the MDASat (maritime domain awareness satellite) constellation as part of government’s Operation Phakisa.

The Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT) is currently developing the 4 kg Zacube-2, a precursor mission to the MDASat constellation that will be engineered by CPUT and its consortium over the next four years. Zacube-2 will demonstrate ship automatic identification system (AIS) and medium resolution payload technologies.

Other local satellite projects include the ZA-AeroSat nano satellite, developed by Stellenbosch University. This was launched aboard an Atlas V rocket in April 2017, to the International Space Station (ISS). It forms part of QB50, a European Union project that is seeing the construction, launch and destruction of 50 cubesats by universities around the world. It was designed to monitor things like the upper atmosphere. Stellenbosch University’s spinoff company CubeSpace was tasked with building the control systems for some of these cubesats. Stellenbosch and CPUT are collaborating on this and the MDASat projects.

The April 2017 Atlas V rocket contained not one but two South African nano satellites – the second was the nSight1, designed and manufactured by Cape Town group SCS Space. Deployed in May 2017 from the ISS, it was also designed to investigate the lower atmosphere. nSight1 was designed and built by SCS Space, software designers Pinkmatter Solutions, the Space Advisory Company, Nelson Mandela University and CPUT. It has a 30 metre resolution imager, developed by SCS and marketed as the Gecko.

SCS is now working on nSight-2 and nSight-3, with nSight-2 to be launched in 2019 and nSight-3 in 2020, reports Engineering News. They will be used for agricultural applications.

In spite of its successes, the local space industry does face some challenges. According to Eduardo Jorge Pinto, Space Engineering Quality Specialist at the South African National Space Agency (SANSA), the National Space Strategy that was published in 2010 has not yet been approved as “the political will is not there,” even though “it was a very good plan and had all the elements we required.”

He said that “we are definitely not funding adequately,” as the Space Strategy proposed spending R1 billion a year for a decade on space and sending a mini satellite into space every three years, but this has not happened.

Pinto said that South Africa has very good engineers who know what they are doing, but “we fail terribly when it comes to budgeting.” Other issues are “terrible” supply chain procedures full of red tape and the impact of foreign currency fluctuations which can affect half the cost of a satellite.

He added that South Africa could save R70-100 million a year by sourcing satellite capabilities locally, instead of relying on foreign satellite service providers. Ndlovu agreed, saying that at the moment South Africa has no telecommunications satellite of its own, and would save billions in developing its own.
“As engineers we focus on engineering and not marketing. This is really really hurting us. We have a long way to go to,” Ndlovu said.

Nomfuneko Majaja, Chief Director of Legal and Compliance, SEZs and Space Affairs at the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), agreed that it is important to have a space industry supported by government as well as government funding. “There has to be a strategic decision from government,” she said. “Once that decision is taken there needs to be a sizeable amount of investment that is put up.”

Developing the space industry would be good for the local economy, as earth observation imagery can be used to evaluate productive land and increase yield; satellites can be used for maritime surveillance, environmental management and communications. Satellite imagery can show ground cover/vegetation, crop production, crop disease, land use, urban development, water quality and usage, pollution, natural disasters etc.

Sansa already provides earth observation imagery to South Africa, as well as weather data, through its Earth Observation and Space Weather divisions. Its other divisions are Space Engineering and Space Operations. According to Sansa, as of November this year, a new International Civil Aviation Organisation regulation will come into effect, requiring all commercial flights to have space weather data – there will soon be a commercial market for the data Sansa has collected for years.