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Feb 28, 2008

SA ponders satellite launch options

© Reuse this The fact that all the leading players in Outer Space have, or are developing, national launch capabilities, has resulted in debate within and between government departments and institutions about South Africa exploring the establishment of its own satellite launch capability.

"This has definitely come up," reveals Department of Science and Technology space science and technology manager Dr Val Munsami.

"In fact, when we were doing the public consultation on the National Space Science and Technology Strategy, the issue of launch capability came up, purely because of the difficulties we are encountering with SumbandilaSat at the moment."

"This is space policy issue," he points out. "The Department of Trade and Industry is busy drafting a space policy at the moment and the launch issue is part of these discussions. The launch capability issue is also sensitive. Cast your mind back to how we got involved in the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR)."

In the 1980s, as part of the country's then nuclear weapons programme, South Africa developed an intermediate-range ballistic missile design. Three such missiles (designed RSA 1 to RSA 3) were built, of which two were test flown.

The third was converted to be a satellite launch vehicle for a spy satellite (which later evolved into the abortive GreenSat, which never flew), only to be subsequently de-activated under international supervision, and then put on display at the South African Air Force Museum at Air Force Base Swartkops, just south of Pretoria.

Further, South Africa adhered to the MTCR. "Some of the negotiations that took place at that time were that we were not going to embark on the development of any new missiles," points out Munsami.

Just as missiles can be adapted to launch satellites, it is not impossible to adapt satellite launch rockets to become missiles. "But, obviously, now that we're members of the MTCR, that means we're responsible users of the technology. So one has to weigh that option, whether we keep those promises, or whether we be responsible users of that technology. And it is clearly a political decision that has to be taken at a policy level."

As for SumbandilaSat, that was meant to have been launched last year, by the Russian Navy, on a converted Shtil submarine-launched ballistic missile. "We have official indications from the Russians that it is problematic that the Shtil can be used," he reports. "They have given us other options, but they will cost us time and money." This is because some of the integration interfaces between the satellite and the launch rocket will have to be re-designed.

As a result, the South Africans are also looking at other launch options, seeking to find that which is best for the country. "India is one of the options," he confirms. "Obviously, Europe is another. We haven't actually considered China but, if it comes our way, we definitely would. But that's not to say we have closed the door on the Russian option yet. We have to weigh the different options and see which is the best to suit our needs."

Edited by: Creamer Media Reporter
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