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Sep 03, 2010

Russia considers ground facilities in SA to support its satellites

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Russia’s space agency, Roscosmos, is in talks with the South African National Space Agency (Sansa) with regard to the possibility of installing a Russian satellite tracking, telemetry and control (TTC) facility in South Africa. This would give the Russians TTC coverage for the southern hemisphere, which they currently lack.

The discussions are at an early stage, so it is not clear whether the outcome could be the erection of a new dish or dishes at South Africa’s Satellite Applications Centre (SAC), at Hartebeesthoek, west of Pretoria, or the use of the SAC’s existing facilities. Roscosmos is busy drawing up a draft agreement covering such a facility and hopes to submit it to Sansa later this month.

This was one of the space issues discussed during President Jacob Zuma’s State visit to Russia last month. Another was the possible South African participation in a number of future Russian radio astronomy projects. South Africa has already expressed interest in Russia’s Radioastron space radio tele- scope project (see Engineering News April 16, 2010). It was also agreed that a cooperative framework would be established between Sansa and the renowned Russian Academy of Sciences, and that Russia would provide training for South African space specialists.

Also under discussion is the establishment of a satellite laser ranging (SLR) ground station in South Africa. This would be in support of the Glonass navigation satellite constellation.
Glonass is an acronym for Global’naya Navigatsionnaya Sputnikovaya Sistema, or Global Navigation Satellite System – it is sometimes referred to as the GNSS – and it is Russia’s counterpart to America’s Global Positioning System (GPS). SLR allows the precise determination of the altitude (orbit) of a satellite, and this information is used to increase the accuracy of the navigational data provided by the Glonass satellites (the US GPS also employs SLR).

The location of a Glonass SLR station in South Africa has not yet been determined.
Roscosmos will provide South Africa with the technical requirements for the station and South African specialists will advise on where it should be sited. There are, however, indications that it could be in the Stellenbosch area. It should, perhaps, be pointed out that the SAC already has a SLR station, used to support other satellites and scientific projects, but not, it seems, optimally located for Glonass. It should also be noted that an SLR station is not involved in the TTC of satellites.

Glonass will achieve full global coverage by the end of this year – currently it covers all of Russia and most of the world – and Moscow has renewed its invitation to South Africa to join the system. The Russians point out that dual GPS/Glonass receiver sets have been developed and that the simultaneous use of both systems increases the accuracy, as opposed to using only one of the systems. (It seems that, tactfully, the Russians have not pointed out the political advantages of not being dependent on one system run by one country.)

In addition, Sansa and Roscosmos signed an memorandum of understanding (MoU) on collaboration regarding earth observation. This MoU was signed during Zuma’s visit to Moscow and announced to the media at the time. Besides other things, it grants Sansa access to Russia’s archive of satellite imagery of Southern Africa, gathered over several decades.

Speaking at the signing of the MoU, Sansa acting CEO Dr Sandile Malinga said that it “will certainly help bolster our extensive archive of satellite imagery collected over the Southern African Development Community region and facilitate the development of human capital in South Africa”. Also present at the signing ceremony was South African Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor, who affirmed that “striking international partnerships of this nature bodes well for South Africa’s standing and positioning in the global space arena and, on the regional front, [positions] us as leaders in the strategic area of remote sensing.”

Edited by: Martin Zhuwakinyu
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