Satellites for South Africa


South Africa plans to launch satellites within the next 15 years in an effort to break into the global satellite launching market and lower the cost of launching its own satellites. The Department of Science and Technology (DST) has announced that workshops will be held to create a firm launch plan.

Consultative workshops with relevant stakeholders on the launch plan will take place later this month, with one workshop being held tomorrow and Thursday. The meeting will be held in Bredasdorp, site of the Overberg Test Range where launches might take place, according to Val Munsami, Deputy Director-General of Research, Development and Innovation at the DST.

South Africa will mainly focus on low orbiting satellites weighing in the region of 200 to 400 kg, Munsami said. The market segment for launching 200 to 1000 kg satellite is a fairly small market but generates revenues of around US$100 million a year with around 14 satellite launches, according to local firm Marcom Aeronautics & Space. On the other hand, 1000 kg to 5000 kg satellite launches generate around US$800 million a year.

Having a domestic satellite launching capability is an important step, because of a series of satellites SA is planning to launch in the next 10 to 15 years. The DST said last month that a constellation of satellites similar to SumbandilaSat is being planned, in order to increase the availability of satellite data for a variety of applications, notably resource management and disaster monitoring. South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria and Algeria will participate in this joint venture and will eventually share in the data produced by the African Resource Management Constellation, according to Munsami. In addition, South Africa hopes to build a space weather satellite with Brazil to monitor radiation over the southern Antarctic.
“This [launch capability] could also place SA in good standing to be viewed as an alternative for countries who wish to launch their satellites,” says Munsami. “Africa is slowly waking up to the importance of satellites,” he told defenceWeb. Indeed, Marcom says that states such as Kenya, Nigeria, Morocco, Algeria and Egypt have formed official space agencies to manage their own space affairs and begin reducing their dependence on foreign satellite services. Africa currently relies almost exclusively on European and American satellites to provide television, communications and navigation services. Satellites over Africa are also used for agricultural management, mineral exploitation, urban planning and wildlife management.

In April 2010 the trade publication Satellite Markets & Research said that Africa was one of the fastest growing markets for telecommunications and satellite services and is growing at nearly twice the global average of 6-7%. This growth is set to continue well into the next decade, spurred by demand for cellular and Internet connectivity as well as government initiatives, Satellite Markets reported. An estimated 20 new satellites with coverage on Africa will be launched in the next five years to address the current capacity shortage on the continent.

According to the recently released UK Space Strategy, the overall world market for the space industry is likely to grow from £160 billion in 2008, to at least £400 billion by 2030, with a yearly growth rate of 5%. In September 2010 Space News reported that the global satellite market stands at between 20 and 30 satellite launches a year.

Last month Science and technology minister Naledi Pandor officially opened the South African National Space Agency (Sansa) and associated National Space Strategy. The latter seeks to promote the peaceful use of space, foster research in space science and communications and navigation, and promote international co-operation in space-related activities.

The South African Space Agency hopes to share some of the global satellite launching market and to further this aim will focus on six core areas – space-based earth observation; space operations (satellite mission control; spacecraft telemetry, tracking and control; and launch support); space science; human capital development; science advancement and public engagement and space engineering, which includes design, development and manufacture of satellites. To further the latter area, a Sansa Space Engineering agency would be set up as well as the Satellite Sensor Centre of Competence, which will work on optronics and synthetic aperture radar.

The establishment of the South African Space Agency and the development of an industrial base for space-related infrastructure is part of the government’s Industrial Policy Action Plan (IPAP), which will focus on key areas to boost the country’s financial capacity and which will create up to 2.4 million jobs by 2020.
“The space industry is now big business. It is not simply a matter of space travel. It’s also about an industry that has enormous potential future growth,” Pandor said at the launch of Sansa last month.

In February last year Pandor said she was looking into re-establishing space rocket launch facilities in South Africa. They were originally deactivated as part of South Africa’s non-nuclear proliferation policy.
“Around 1988, the South African government initiated a project to develop a low-earth orbit reconnaissance satellite system for the Air Force that resulted in Greensat. This project [which was to use the RSA-3 ballistic missile platform] was abandoned in 1994 and SA lost valuable technological development and skilled people in this area,” Munsami said.

South Africa has previously contemplated a satellite programme and the infrastructure created for that is largely still available, albeit in mothballs, Pandor said. 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 (known in the 1980s known as Houwteq) was part of apartheid SA’s space programme. This 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 and were incorporated into state arsenal Denel’s Overberg Test Range. Other facilities include the Space Weather Centre at the Hermanus Magnetic Observatory and the Satellite Application Centre in Gauteng.

The science minister says that South Africa has existing infrastructure that could be utilised, notably Overberg. Although the launch pad was destroyed as part of South Africa’s nuclear stand-down and the payload processing facility was mothballed, Overberg has retained almost all of its space launch capability, including mission control centre, radar and telemetry tracking facilities and range safety systems, says Mark Comninos, head of Marcom Aeronautics & Space. The only extra modifications needed would be to re-commission the payload processing facility and construct a concrete launch pad.

However, Munsami has said that South Africa also needs sound international partnerships to complement the national skills to expedite the plan, and financial backing for the plan. At the moment partners and funding for the satellite programme are still being negotiated. Sansa is expected to have a budget of between R400 to R500 million in its first financial year.

To put this into perspective, the Vostochny Cosmodrome in Russia, with seven launch pads, will cost around $13.5 billion to build, according to RIA Novosti, while a Soyuz launch pad at the European Space Agency’s spaceport in French Guiana costs €200 million. French Guiana is a good place to launch satellites as it is on the equator, meaning that few trajectory changes are needed to put a satellite into orbit. In addition, the rotation of the earth is strongest at the equator and this gives the satellite an added boost. Therefore less propellant is needed. Satellites can be launched from anywhere, but it is cheaper and easier to launch from the equator.

Overberg, on the other hand, is ideally suited to launching satellites intended for polar, sun-synchronous and high inclination orbits, Marcom says, as long as the fly-out direction is over the southern or south-eastern ocean. Having said that, many satellite launch centres are further from the equator than Overberg, which is as far south of the equator as Cape Canaveral is north of the equator. In fact, Baikonur and Japan are further from the equator.

Munsami told defenceWeb that negotiations are taking place with Marcom to develop a prototype test engine to benchmark the technology for a new satellite launch vehicle. Marcom was set up in Johanesburg in 2002 and specialises in conducting research and development of aerospace technologies in support of launch vehicle and spacecraft systems. The company has submitted several proposals to government in this regard and would like to become involved in a government/private sector satellite launch initiative.

The company is currently working on the Cheetah-1 commercial satellite launch vehicle (CSLV), with a payload of up to 1000 kg. Comninos told defenceWeb that South Africa possesses all the technology and skills necessary to launch satellites and that, given the right funding (between R350 million and R750 million), could be in space within five years with a launch vehicle capable of lifting up to 1000 kg to low Earth orbit.

However, South Africa is not the only country looking to expand into the satellite market. In December last year India signed a five year contract with EADS-Astrium for the join manufacture and launch of satellites, according to the Deccan Chronicle. India will launch four new satellites over the next two years and is also working on its own satellite launch vehicles such as the four ton capacity GSLV-Mk III, the Indian Express reports. In addition, China plans to take up a 10% share of the world’s commercial satellite market, and 15% of the commercial launch business by 2015, China Daily reported in October. This year China will conduct three commercial launches for France, Pakistan and Nigeria, and will launch another three satellites next year. Over the last three decades China has conducted 30 commercial launches for 14 countries, and is increasingly looking to developing nations for more contracts, China Daily reported.

South Africa can and does build its own small satellites, starting with SunSat, which was built by Stellenbosch University and launched by NASA in 1999. South Africa’s second satellite SumbandilaSat was built by local specialist company SunSpace at a cost of R26 million, and is owned by the DST. Although its imaging capacity is not has high as other satellites, it has succeeded in its primary stated mission of proving the viability of affordable micro-satellite technology, the DST says.

In February last year Cabinet approved a move by the DST to buy a majority stake of between 55 and 60 percent in the Stellenbosch-based microsatellite manufacturer. Democratic Alliance science and technology spokeswoman Marian Shinn has said the stake could be worth as much as R100 million.

SumbandilaSat was launched from Kazakhstan in September 2009. It was originally scheduled for launch aboard a Russian naval submarine in 2007, but this fell through.

Despite a stabilisation system problem, SumbandilaSat is currently sending back imagery at no cost, whereas an image from a commercial satellite costs R40000, the DST says. “The lesson learned from the Sumbandila project is how vital it is to launch your satellite on schedule. The ability to launch our own satellites gives us self-reliance and independence, and it will allow SA to plan its launch schedules better.”

Satellite launches are expensive – the Times reports that it cost R12 million to launch the 81kg SumbandilaSat – and this is money that could rather be spent in South Africa. The current price for launching a satellite stands at about $20000 per kilogram. According to Marcom, smaller payloads (of up to 100 kg) can cost between $10000 and $30000 per kilogram, depending on payload size and orbit. However, there may be additional costs such as range fees, payload processing fees, insurance, certification and other costs involved. Marcom believes local launch services could be provided at costs below $10000/kg.
“Simply put, without independent access to space, South Africa cannot timely and effectively provide satellite services locally nor to other African countries, nor to other developing nations around the world,” Marcom says.