7 October 2011
South Africa is planning to build its third satellite, to form part of a new African satellite constellation, as part of a government drive to grow the country’s share of the global market for small- to medium-sized space systems.
“Our intention is to expand our investment in ‘micro’ satellites, building on the existing SumbandilaSat platform,” Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor told delegates at the 62nd International Astronautical Congress, the prestigious annual congress of the International Astronautical Federation (IAF), in Cape Town this week.
The country’s second satellite, the two-year-old SumbandilaSat, has been out of commission since a blast of solar radiation damaged its on-board computer in July.
Sandile Malinga, chief executive of the SA National Space Agency (Sansa), announced last month that South Africa hoped to start building a new, fully operational satellite – not just a prototype or “pathfinder” satellite such as SumbandilaSat – as early as 2012, for possible launch by 2014/15.
The new satellite would cost in the region of R400-million – compared to the R26-million spent on SumbandilaSat – and would also be used for earth observation, in line with the country’s space strategy, which seeks to apply satellite data to help to improve livelihoods, reduce poverty and manage natural disasters in the country and the region.
African Resource Management Constellation
Ideally, the new satellite will be one of at least four satellites together forming the African Resource Management (ARM) Constellation of satellites which was formally agreed on between South Africa, Nigeria, Algeria and Kenya in 2009.
“The basic idea behind the ARM concept is that a number of African countries each contribute one satellite to the constellation, but can access data from all the other satellites as well,” Pandor said in Cape Town this week, adding that ARM was “open to other interested African countries to join on the basis of their needs and capabilities.”
Nigeria and Algeria each have two satellites already up and running, Business Day noted this week, as does Egypt, while Angola has one – leaving South Africa somewhat lagging in Africa’s “space race”.
“But unlike the others, we build our own satellites,” Business Day quoted Malinga as saying this week.
SumbandilaSat was built by Stellenbosch-based company Sun Space and Information Systems (SunSpace). Its predecessor, Sunsat, launched in 1999, was designed and built by Stellenbosch University staff and postgraduate students, leading to the formation of SunSpace, in which the state is seeking to acquire a majority shareholding.
Space facilities ‘that are unique in Africa’
“SunSpace has secured orders from international clients for satellites and subsystems, and has also demonstrated that it can train engineers in other emerging space nations,” Pandor told delegates at the IAF’s congress this week.
“In the field of satellite development, South Africa possesses some space facilities that are unique in Africa. These include a satellite assembly, test and integration facility, situated not far from here in Grabouw, and a launch facility situated at Arniston [also in the Western Cape].”
Further development in this field, Pandor said, would be accompanied by the development of applications for the provision of geospatial, telecommunications, timing and positioning products and services in the country.
“Here we are working to develop our capabilities in earth observation, communication and position, timing, and navigation,” which would play a big role in understanding the causes and effects and climate change, among other applications.
“We are particularly interested in South Africa in tele-medicine and tele-education, and we have only just begun to tap the possibilities,” Pandor said.
SumbandilaSat programme ‘successful’
While SumbandilaSat is now out of action, it had succeeded as a satellite technology demonstrator programme, Malinga maintains.
The satellite was designed and built from scratch in one year, at low cost, by South African engineers, who also developed a world-class mission control system for the programme.
SumbandilaSat delivered over 1 000 very usable, cloud-free images before being damaged by solar radiation, and became well-known by the amateur radio satellite society worldwide for the excellent results from its amateur radio payload.
“The success of the programme as assessed by the international space science community has put South Africa on the map for its ability to develop and operate small- and medium-sized satellite programmes,” Malinga said in a statement last month.
“Many of the nine black satellite engineers trained as a result of the programme are still active in the satellite industry and are performing excellently.”
SA exploring own satellite launch capability
Malinga said that Sansa was also exploring whether or not South Africa should try to establish its own satellite launch capability.
At least one South African company has an interest in this. Marcom Aeronautics & Space recently announced that it was developing a rocket engine as part of its development of a two-stage, liquid-fueled launch vehicle capable of delivering a 1 000kg payload into low-Earth orbit.
Sunday Times reported last year that the government was considering reopening apartheid-era space rocket launch sites in order to fast-track the country’s national space programme.
Last month, defenceWeb reported that South Africa “has existing infrastructure that could be utilised for local satellite launches, notably facilities at Air Force Base Overberg.”
Marcom head Mark Comninos told defenceWeb that, although Overberg’s launch pad was destroyed as part of South Africa’s nuclear stand-down and the payload processing facility was mothballed, the site had retained almost all of its space launch capability, including mission control centre, radar and telemetry tracking facilities and range safety systems.
“According to the 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%,” defenceWeb wrote.
“In September 2010, Space News reported that the global satellite market stands at between 20 and 30 satellite launches a year.
“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.”