Analysts say that the planet earth’s rapidly growing space economy could hit $600-billion by 2030 and $1-trillion by 2040. Clearly, the space economy, worth some $350-billion today, is growing rapidly.
Space has become ubiquitous in everyday life. If you use satellite navigation (GPS), you use space. “Someone living in the remote highlands of Scotland, for example, can now access state-of-the-art medical facilities as easily as if they were living in the city,” observes a British government report, published this very month. “Mining companies are prospecting for lithium deposits from low earth orbit . . . No one need think about the spacecraft and infrastructure making it all possible with unparalleled convenience and cost effectiveness – becoming a seamless part of our everyday lives is the sector’s greatest achievement.”
Japan is one country seeking to benefit from the rapid growth in the space economy. Last year, the Japanese government published its Space Industry Vision 2030, which announced Japan would seek to double the size of its space industry to $21-billion by 2030.
At the Global Space & Technology Convention in February, Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) VP Shizuo Yamamoto explained that this was part of Tokyo’s plan to grow the Japanese economy, which had been almost stagnant for the last 20 years. “There is an urgent need for Japan to reorganise the economy for greater growth industries,” he stated. To assist in this process, JAXA was moving from being predominantly a research and development organisation to one that also developed applications. Two key areas the agency has identified and is now working on are the development of more internationally competitive satellites and launch vehicles and developing more “value-added products and services” through the application of emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence and Big Data analysis.
Britain, too, is seeking to greatly expand its share of the global space economy, from 6.5% today to 10% by 2030. The abovementioned report is, significantly, titled ‘Prosperity from Space: A Partnership Strategy for the UK’. It was published under the aegis of the UK’s Space Growth Partnership (the partnership being between industry, government and academia; the development of the report was led by industry). The objective of the strategy is to increase the value of space to “wider industrial activities” by 100% from the current £250-billion to £500-billion. To this end, four priority sectors have been identified: connectivity services (worldwide connectivity from any device, anywhere); earth information services (including analytics, navigation and security); in-space robotics (for “science enterprise” as well as consumers); and low-cost access to space. The desire is to make the UK a hub for commercial space services, including launch services from spaceports (which could be private- sector endeavours – authorised in the Space Industry Act, which came into force in March), with the concomitant encouragement of investment, stimulation of innovation, creation of highly skilled jobs and the expansion of exports.
“Globally, the space sector is evolving at an ever-increasing rate,” observes the report. “Nations around the world are ramping up their space capabilities, including in space science, while private operators are changing the dynamics of the industry and new technologies lowering barriers to entry – slashing the cost of building and launching satellites.”
And these are the ambitions and plans of just two countries. Let me reiterate a point made above: “Nations around the world are ramping up their space capabilities.” Unfortunately, South Africa does not seem to be one of them. The 2018/19 budget allocated by the Department of Science and Technology to the South African National Space Agency (Sansa) is only about 5% higher than the amount it received in 2017/18 (R138-million, as against R131-million). South Africa’s average inflation rate so far this year (according to the inflation.eu website) has been 3.94% (average inflation was 5.19% last year), meaning that Sansa is enjoying only a marginal funding increase in real terms.
In March, we reported that Sansa’s EO-Sat1 satellite programme was still not fully funded, including a lack of funds to upgrade the Houwteq satellite assembly, integration and testing facility (which belongs to State-owned defence industrial group Denel). The EO-Sat1 (then called ZA-ARMC1) programme was announced at the end of 2012 (the actual development contract, with Denel SpaceTeq, was signed in 2014). As of March, it had not completed its preliminary design review stage, although it was expected that this would be completed by or during next month.
EO-Sat1 will be a mini-satellite (meaning it will have a mass between 100 kg and 500kg, including fuel) and, in 2013, we reported its main payload would be a 2.5 m resolution panchromatic imager; this does not seem to have changed. It is now hoped to launch it in 2020 – once upon a time, the aim had to be to launch it this year.
But, since the programme was conceived, there has been tremendous progress in space technology and there is now a real danger that EO-Sat1 will be obsolete before it is finished, let alone launched. On the one hand, there are now mini-satellites in orbit carrying imagers of higher resolution than that planned for EO-Sat1. An example is Britain’s Carbonite-1 technology demonstrator, with a mass of 91 kg and carrying a 1.5 m resolution imager. On the other, imagers for much smaller and cheaper nanosatellites (popularly called CubeSats) are being developed whose resolution is now approaching that of EO-Sat1’s imager. Thus, Brazilian company Akaer has developed an imager for nanosatellites that operates across seven spectral bands and has a resolution of less than 5 m.
South Africa is being left behind. But government does not have the money to boost its spending on space. The only way out of this dilemma is for the country to adopt a radically new approach. South Africa must break free of its obsolete obsession with State-centric, State-driven development. It, too, must focus on facilitating and stimulating the development of the private enterprise space sector, including spaceports, with the necessary legislation, regulations, and carefully targeted investments in key local technology developments. It works elsewhere. Why not here?