State to acquire majority stake in SunSpace


Cabinet has “approved in principle” that the government acquire an equity share of between 55 and 60% in Sun Space & Information Systems (SunSpace), the Stellenbosch University (Sun) satellite business that built the SumbandilaSat microsatellite “in order to retain South Africa’s national space capabilities” and move SA closer to a goal of launching satellites itself within five to ten years.

Nomfuneko Majaja, the government`s Chief Director Advanced Manufacturing Space Affairs at the Department of Trade and Industry told Parliament last July that “it was hoped that SA would be in a position to be a launching state in five to ten years time.”

A statement issued after last Wednesday’s Cabinet meeting at Tuynhuis in Cape Town says “the Ministers of Finance, Trade and Industry and Science and Technology will finalise the most prudent funding model for the acquisition of the equity deal.”

The statement adds SunSpace “is a private company that was set up as a spin-off of the satellite development research programme at the University of Stellenbosch. The company has undertaken a number of space programmes including the design, development and manufacturing of the SumbandilaSat that was launched into space recently.” The R26 million, 81kg SumbandilaSat, SA’s second satellite was launched in September last year. It was a follow-on to the SunSat microsatellite launched from the US in 1999.

SunSpace was previously owned by a university investment trust, founder members and employees. SunSpace CE Bart Cilliers told Engineering News talks have been ongoing for two years. He expected the talks to be concluded by June or July. Cilliers told the engineering daily the company approached the state. “Most clients are governments and they want to know that the manufacturer has the support of its home government. This deal shows solid government support and assures the stability and longevity of the company.”

In July last year the National Empowerment Fund (NEF) invested R50-million SunSpace to allow it to “increase its capacity and improve its competitiveness in the aerospace market.” The Engineering News reported at the time the NEF would invest the funds directly into black economic-empowerment (BEE) consortium Mihle, which owns 25% of the company`s equity. “The deal is in line with the NEF`s mandate of fostering and supporting broad-based black economic-empowerment (BBBEE) and is one of a series of recent investments aimed at rapidly increasing black participation in strategic industries and enterprises,” the Engineering News added.

The moves follow the DTI publishing a National Space Policy in March last year as a further step towards regaining the ability to launch satellites from SA into space. The policy will be administered by the DTI, while the accompanying National Space Strategy is managed by the Department of Science and Technology.

For this reason, the Parliamentary Monitoring Group reported, the DTI were shepherding the UN Convention on International Liability for Damage caused by Space Objects of 1972 and UN Convention on Registration of Objects launched into Outer Space of 1975 through the National Assembly.

Majaja told MPs the Liability Convention dealt with the responsibility of a State in the event of damages caused by its “space objects”. This convention also distinguished between different situations, where absolute, fault based of joint and several liability would be deemed to apply. The manner in which claims were made was also addressed.

According to the PMG, Deputy Minister of Trade and Industry Thandi Tobias said there was “heavy competition to gain access to space and having a satellite would prove beneficial to the country”. She said that the priority of government was social spending, and having a communications satellite formed part of that. Advocate Luthando Mkhumathela, chair of the Space Council, added that some of the benefits gained from communication satellites included navigation for aircraft in flight, gaining knowledge of weather patterns and navigation for fishing boats. They did not say why this would require SA-owned satellites and why existing commercial and military constellations were insufficient.

SA has previously contemplated a satellite programme and the infrastructure created for that is largely still available. This includes the Institute for Satellite and Software Applications, at Grabouw, near Cape Town. The facility, now in the hands of the Department of Communications, was in the 1980s known as Houwteq, part of apartheid SA’s space programme, which was central to a broader scheme to build ballistic missiles tipped with nuclear weapons. Launch-pads and a launch control facility were built in the Overberg. These are now part of state arsenal Denel`s Overberg Test Range.