South Africa's Polar-Orbiting Ploughshares – A National Space Agency could help it become a regional powerhouse in Earth observation

Peter FairleyArticles, Earth Observation, Original, Politics, Technology

Lerothodi Leeuw, South African astrophysicist at NASA Ames Space Center

Lerothodi Leeuw, South African astrophysicist at NASA Ames Space Center

South Africa is looking skyward, preparing to take its space program into higher orbit with the launch of a space agency. Twelve months ago President Kgalema Motlanthe signed legislation to create the South African National Space Agency (SANSA), and nominations for a board were approved in the fall. Its mandate is to promote the peaceful use of space, accelerate the industrial development of space technology, and foster research and international cooperation space science and engineering.

This is no flight of imagination, but rather a measured effort to coordinate and increase the capacity of South Africa’s existing scientific and technical assets and capabilities. South Africa has already engineered its own satellites, it serves as a hub for satellite telemetry, and it is installing world-class astronomical observatories. Within a decade, if SANSA is successful, South Africa could parlay these capabilities into a larger role as a regional powerhouse in Earth observation.

The potential payoff is both strategic and financial. Euroconsult, a consulting firm specialized in satellite applications, predicts that 260 Earth observing satellites will be launched between 2009 to 2018, up from 128 during the previous decade, with a total value of $19.3 billion; it predicts that emerging countries such as South Africa wishing to better manage their resources and respond to environmental threats could represent up to 17% of that total value.

South Africa is uniquely positioned to prosper from meeting such needs thanks to low labor costs and home-grown expertise in building small, cheaper-to-launch and thus increasingly popular microsatellites. “Very few countries actually have expertise in small satellite technology right now, and South Africa is one of these,” says Lerothodi Leeuw, a South African astrophysicist currently at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California. “They really have a niche at this point.”

The challenges facing South Africa may, however, be as great as the opportunity. A three-year delay in launching SumbandilaSat – an Earth-observing microsatellite boosted in orbit this fall – left key private sector players in limbo, straining to hold on to their best engineers. The country also faces severe financial pressures after weathering its first recession since 1992, and many citizens view space as a luxury for a country struggling to house millions of poor still living in townships or squatter camps. The financial squeeze complicates the task of unifying space-related institutions that have survived by looking out for themselves rather than trusting to the common good.

Launching SANSA, say government, academic and industry players, is critical to forging the vision and the cooperation required to overcome these obstacles and make good on South Africa’s space opportunity. “People right now speak for their own areas first rather than what might be important for the country as a whole,” says Leeuw. “I see SANSA setting the goals, deciding on missions to be done by the country. With a vision there’d be implementation.”

From Origins into Vision

The space assets that SANSA will seek to harness are a mix of old and new. Satellite telemetry and tracking operations at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research’s Satellite Application Centre near Johannesburg date from 1958 when NASA installed antennas in South Africa as part of its global telemetry system. Over the decades, the operation at Hartebeesthoek has supported orbital, lunar and interplanetary missions. Satellite engineering and launch capabilities, meanwhile, date to the 1980s when an increasingly isolated Apartheid regime developed a military spy satellite and the means to launch it. The result was a satellite engineering capability at Stellenbosch University’s Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering, satellite test facilities at the southernmost tip of Africa now part of the State-owned defence industry Denel, and a ballistic missile adapted for satellite launch (on display at the South African Air Force Museum).

EO Satellite Market

EO Satellite Market

A handful of projects and dedication has sustained this infrastructure and the knowledge behind them since South Africa discontinued the defence-related space programs in 1994 as part of the dismantling of its nascent nuclear weapons program. Stellenbosch University professors and students applied their own resources to turn out the world’s first small satellite equipped with a camera: a 64-kilogram microsatellite which NASA rocketed into orbit in 1999. Then the government funded development of a second microsatellite: the 81-kg SumbandilaSat microsatellite produced by Stellenbosch University spinoff company SunSpace and Information Systems which Russia launched in September.

Meanwhile the country has developed international partnerships and its internal capacity to use Earth observation data as a founding and continuing co-chair of the intergovernmental Group on Earth Observations. South Africa established a downlink this year for data from the China-Brazil Earth Resources Satellite, provided to sub-Saharan African countries free of charge. The country is breaking new ground with web-based portals to promote the use of such Earth observation data, such as the Wide Area Monitoring Information System developed by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research Remote Sensing Research Unit which provides near real-time monitoring and mapping capabilities of natural disasters such as fires, floods, and droughts across Southern Africa. A Risk and Vulnerability Atlas is under development to make such information accessible to non-specialist risk-managers and emergency responders.

All the while, world-leading activity in the related science of astronomy has offered further testimony to the capabilities of South African engineering and science. The Southern African Large Telescope completed in 2005 in the semi-desert Karoo region is the most advanced optical observatory in the Southern Hemisphere. And South Africa is now bidding against Australia to host the massive Square Kilometre Array telescope installation, a R17-billion ($2.2-billion) array of radio signal receivers designed to probe the origins of the universe.

These activities, however, are not equal to South Africa’s ambitions to become a full space nation, complete with its own launch capability. The experience with SumbandilaSat exemplifies why the country needs to expand its activities if it is to sustain its capabilities.

SunSpace was created in 2001 when the success of the SunSat microsatellite earned the Stellenbosch group an order for a somewhat larger satellite from another country (as yet undisclosed). Whereas SunSat’s camera had a resolution of 15 meters from its 600-meter high polar-orbiting perch, the new 200-kg satellite offered 3-meter resolution. After that was delivered in 2003, South Africa’s Department of Science and Technology ordered SumbandilaSat.

SumbandilaSat was built in less than 15 months but its December 2006 launch date with a Russian rocket came and went due to a high-level diplomatic dispute. (South Africa’s Engineering News and its Mail & Guardian newspaper reported that the dispute centered on the cancellation of a military satellite which South Africa’s Defense Department supposedly ordered from its Russian counterparts.) Whatever its cause, the delay posed an impediment to SunSpace securing further microsatellite orders. According to Leeuw, who is an investor in SunSpace, the company has been operating in survival mode as they await results from SumbandilaSat. “If you build something as big as this you want to show it off,” says Leeuw. “The company didn’t have that and it was a serious problem.”

SALT with Star trails. Credit: SALT consortium

SALT with Star trails. Credit: SALT consortium

SunSpace may be a leader in microsatellites, and a low-cost provider, but competition is intensifying. Euroconsult lists South Africa as just one of a number of developing countries including Algeria, Chile, Iran, Turkey and Nigeria that are establishing national space agencies and developing small Earth observation platforms to rapidly acquire space technology while meeting their own data needs. Their 2009 report estimates that satellite manufacturing in sub-Saharan Africa, including South Africa, will grab just 1-2% of the Earth observing satellite work anticipated through 2018.

SumbandilaSat’s launch delay has also likely contributed to the delay of follow-on Earth observing satellite missions from South Africa itself. The satellite’s name, which means “lead the way” in the Venda language, speaks to the mission’s explicit function as a case study to inform South Africa’s space policy process. South Africa’s cabinet gave a green light to creating SANSA in 2006, but only now in the wake of SumbandilaSat’s successful launch is the agency heading for reality. With further missions on hold, SunSpace has had to survive by building subcomponents for other satellites built for Australia, Korea, Brazil, Germany, and Italy.

Space Agency Liftoff

The good news is that confidence is building that SANSA will provide a coordinated vision to drive a new set of missions forward. Lerato Senoko, Deputy Director of Space Technologies in the DST says that South Africa has all of the capabilities it needs, and that SANSA will help it develop the capacity to sustain multiple missions in Earth observation. “We will be able to collate all space activities in the country, encourage integration, assess the gaps, and speak through one voice,” says Senoko.

Senoko is not prepared to say what further missions are likely to proceed or when. That, she says, is for SANSA to determine in collaboration with the satellite data user community. But it seems likely that the core of the program will be Earth observation. There has already been discussion of a possible geostationary satellite over Africa, a science mission to study the juncture of the cold South Atlantic Ocean and the Indian Ocean off South Africa near Cape Agulhas, and a platform for a 400-kg class satellite platform that could be South Africa’s contribution to the African Resource & Environmental Management Constellation of satellites which is a joint initiative with Kenya, Algeria and Nigeria.

The government has also reaffirmed a central role for SunSpace. The country’s National Empowerment Fund announced a R50 million investment in SunSpace this summer based on its judgement that SunSpace is “poised to receive and deliver on key government contracts.” SunSpace’s Olivier says there is “an accepted degree of understanding” between Sunspace and the government. “We look forward to a mutually beneficial future in space,” he says.

Lerato Senoko, Deputy Director of Space Technologies in the DST

Lerato Senoko, Deputy Director of Space Technologies in the DST

As the DST and soon SANSA work towards enhanced communication amongst the players within South Africa’s space community, many also point to the critical importance of communicating externally.

For certain, South Africa must inspire more students to pursue engineering and the physical sciences. Leeuw says it is a necessity for fulfilling South Africa’s space ambitions. “The preparation of future scientists needs to start happening at the very lowest levels in South Africa—even before high school,” says Leeuw. SANSA must get hands-on about it, he says, rather than just counting on the existence of space programs to make the difference: “People say that all you have to do is build stuff and kids will get inspired. That’s total nonsense. What gets kids inspired is direct exposure.”

Senoko emphasizes that SANSA must also tell its story effectively to sustain support for the space program. She has heard the quips that African nations exploring space is “like giving somebody who doesn’t have transport a Rolls Royce.” Nothing could be further from the truth, says Senoko, given the space program’s ability to provide space-based information cheaper than South Africa currently buys it, the enhanced access to critical data that comes with dedicated equipment, and the economic development dividends. But she recognizes that the scientific community frequently falls short in communicating such benefits of its innovations, and the heightened importance of doing so in a hard-pressed African country.

“We are doing our best to make sure that each and every single citizen understands how space affects their lives directly or indirectly,” says Senoko. “At the end of the day it has to give us solutions to better peoples’ lives. At the end of every year that we report back to government we have to say this is what we’ve achieved and this is how it has altered certain areas.”