Sumbandilasat launch delayed – again


The launch of South Africa‘s R26 million 81-kilogramme low-orbit earth observation microsatellite, Sumbandilasat, has been delayed 24 hours because of telemetry trouble and bad weather.

The satellite, set to launch at 5.55pm South African time yesterday afternoon atop a Russian Soyuz rocket at Baikonur in Kazakhstan, will now be blasted into space at the same time today.

The 1m x 0.5m satellite is the result of a three-year integrated capacity and satellite development programme commissioned by the Department of Science and Technology (DST) in 2005 and carried out by Stellenbosch University‘s engineering faculty and its commercial spin-out, SunSpace.   

The DST notes this is the same organisation that developed SunSat which was launched in 1999. SunSat was SA`s first locally-built satellite and was launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California in the United States.  

Science and Technology minister Naledi Pandor is in Kazakhstan to witness the launch, which comes after numerous previous delays.

Pandor`s department says that among the many benefits Sumbandilasat will offer South Africa are information that will assist in the effective management of disasters (floods and fires), food security (crop yield estimation), health (prediction of outbreaks), safety and security, water resources and energy security.

“The satellite will orbit about 500 km to 600 km above the earth. Carrying high resolution cameras, it will produce images to be used for agriculture, mapping of infrastructure and land use, population measurement and the monitoring of dam levels, among other things, and stream this information to the Satellite Applications Centre (SAC) at Hartbeeshoek west of Pretoria.

“The SAC will carry out the command and communications functions by tracking the satellite using a large dish antenna,” the department says.

Despite previous cancellations of the launch date, DST project manager Humbulani Mudau says that “stakeholders were confident that technical aspects were under control and all protocols were now in place to allow for the successful launch of Sumbandilasat as planned.

“We need to remember that there are a number of technical nuances involved in launching a satellite of this nature into orbit.

Media reports have blamed some of the delays on fallout related to former defence minister Mosiuoa Lekota cancelling a secret reconnaissance satellite acquisition by Defence Intelligence.  

The Mail & Guardian reported the contract was placed by then-Chief of Defence Intelligence, Lt Gen Moreti “Mojo” Motau. It added that it was “unclear why Lekota cancelled the contract”, but hinted that Motau had signed the deal without authorisation.   

The paper adds 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.”