In August last year, the US-based Space Foundation reported that the worldwide space economy was worth $329-billion in 2016, up from $323-billion in 2015. The foundation noted that the rise was due to the increase in commercial space activities (there had been tiny declines in government space budgets, including in the US). In fact, in 2016, commercial space activities accounted for 76% of the global space economy, valued at of $253-billion.
Meanwhile, in 2015, most of the world’s countries agreed to a set of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). These followed on from, and built upon the success of, the Millennium Development Goals agreed to in 2000. “With the SDGs, the connection between people and planet has been recognised and the result is 17 goals for land, oceans, waterways, climate, health, and so on,” observes the European Space Agency (ESA) on its website (‘Space for Earth’ page).
“The ESA has already developed a wide range of programmes that will help achieve the SDGs for everyone on earth,” it states. Unfortunately, in South Africa, there still seems to be a general lack of awareness of the importance of space systems and technology in terms of both social and economic development.
Eye above the sky
“Some of the SDGs cannot be achieved without space,” highlights South African National Space Agency (Sansa) CEO Dr Val Munsami. “We have focused on, and will increase our focus on, space for sustainable development. Sources of data to monitor progress in meeting the SDGs are a big issue. We know we can make a big impact.”
This requires a reconsideration of the National Space Strategy. When that was developed, in 2007, the focus was on providing value for government. The National Space Strategy is concerned with meeting the requirements of government departments and agencies, with three priority areas identified – environmental resource management; health, safety and security; and innovation and economic growth. Within each of these priority areas, a list of sectoral programmes was drawn up, such as marine management, disaster management and stimulating the development of a local space industry.
“Since then, a lot has happened, especially with regard to geospatial data,” he points out. The quantity and quality of this data have increased dramatically. The ease of accessing it has improved dramatically. Sansa needs to expand its focus to include nongovernmental users and users (both governmental and nongovernmental) elsewhere in Africa.
“Africa is a growth opportunity,” he stresses. “About three African countries are interested in codeveloping nanosatellites with South Africa. And students from the Space Science Institute of the Pan African University will be converging on South Africa next year, when the programme kicks off.
“One of the things we did last year was to develop a new strategic framework for the agency and then use it to modify our strategic plan,” he reports. “It is now awaiting Ministerial approval. It includes the identification of the new things Sansa has to do to fulfil its mandate.”
Regarding the impact of space on economic development, an example is bridging the ‘yield gap’ in agriculture – that is, the gap between the productive capacity of land and the actual, lower, production achieved on that land. “Using earth observation (EO) imagery can increase agricultural production. A production increase of just 10% in agriculture would have a dramatic impact on the economy,” observes SCS Aerospace Group executive chairperson Sias Mostert. “There are wider areas of impact: marine area surveillance; environmental management (which is crucial) – from space you can monitor on a monumental scale, and regularly; and communications, especially in remote areas – remoteness is not an obstacle for space-based systems – [thus] providing key communications services anywhere in South Africa.” EO data and imagery can show ground cover/vegetation, crop production, crop disease, land use, urban development (especially informal urban development), water bodies (their quality and whether they are growing or shrinking), pollution, cloud cover, short-term geographical changes such as landslides and avalanches and, of course, weather, among many applications.
Space Central, RSA
Sansa comprises four directorates. These are Sansa Earth Observation, Sansa Space Engineering, Sansa Space Operations and Sansa Space Weather.
“With Earth Observation, we get satellite data and do ‘base processing’ and so develop ‘base maps’ of vegetation, water bodies, and so on,” explains Munsami. “Any additional development above the base maps would be done by other government agencies and by the private sector. One of Sansa’s roles is to support national systems of innovation, in both the public and private sectors. We are looking at developing a core infrastructure for the country for satellite data development in order to avoid duplication – a distributed system which would be a kind of national EO ‘cloud’. We’re also having discussions about extending this into Africa – to piggy-back on a cloud platform originally conceived for radio astronomy.”
“Currently, Space Engineering is effectively satellite engineering,” elucidates Sansa executive director: space programme Amal Khatri. It is involved in two programmes – EOSat-1 and ZACube-2. EOSat-1 is a national EO satellite, while ZACube-2 is a nanosatellite – the latter programme involves and is being administered by the Cape Peninsula University of Technology. The EOSat-1 programme is hampered by a lack of funding, but Sansa is working on this challenge.
A major focus of Sansa Space Science is Space Weather, which is the term given to the interactions between the particles radiated by the sun (the solar wind) and the earth’s magnetic field and radiation belts. The particular concern is with the effects of major discharges from the sun, such as solar flares, coronal mass ejections, solar energetic particles and high-speed solar wind, which trigger magnetic storms and intensify the radiation belts. The results can damage satellites, affect satellite navigation systems (such as global positioning systems), cause problems with electrical transmission grids and interfere with short-wave radio broadcasts. They can also increase the radiation exposure of flight crew and passengers on long-distance airline flights.
“Sansa Space Science was assessed by the World Meteorological Organisation to become the Space Weather provider for Africa. Formal approval of this is expected soon,” observes Munsami. “As of November this year, a new International Civil Aviation Organisation regulation will come into effect, requiring all commercial flights to have Space Weather data. So something we have done for many years now has a commercial market! It also gives us an opportunity to train pilots how to respond to magnetic storm warnings. It’s a good example of how space affects our daily lives.”
“Sansa Space Operations is the most advanced ground station in Africa, with the ability to track all telemetry, tracking and control frequencies presently used in the global space industry,” affirms directorate MD Raoul Hodges. “Our location makes us unique. We act as the last downlink for satellites before they go over the South Pole. Our ability to track any EO satellite, whether for South African use or international use, makes us sought after.” Further, Sansa Space Operations can ‘see’ the second stage of many launches – particularly from the Americas – and can see the separation of spacecraft from those second stages. This capability is very important to the agency or company responsible for the launch.
Indeed, Sansa Space Operations is a very important local element in the global space economy. It has 11 international partners and many of its services are provided on a commercial basis, paid for in hard currency. “Our strategic focus is to increase our portfolio, to meet the international demand for teleports and GNSS (global navigation satellite systems),” he affirms. Teleports refer to greatly increased data reception and transmission. “To meet the necessary requirements, we have invested in a new dark fibre cable, from our Hartebeesthoek site to Terraco (a company based in Isando, east of Johannesburg, which acts as a major national and international data node).”
GNSS has been the subject of a joint project between Sansa Space Operations and Sansa Space Science. “A joint team is working on a satellite navigation augmentation system,” highlighted Munsami. “Working with international partners, they have tested a system for Southern Africa. The result is an accuracy of about one metre instead of the five metres to six metres that is usual. The system works. We just need the approval and investment to operationalise the infrastructure. The economic returns could exceed costs by a ratio of ten to one. Our board has already given its approval.”
Hodges noted that his directorate would probably implement and manage the system until it had developed to the point that it could be established as a separate, fully fledged, self-sustaining Sansa directorate. “This technology will enable much more efficient farming, driverless cars, and all sorts of other applications, including improved air traffic control and increased flight safety,” he observed. “GNSS is no longer a luxury. It has become a necessity.”
Sansa Space Operations also plays an important role in supporting space exploration. It is considering an approach from international partners to establish ground segment infrastructure for a deep space tracking facility. “Basically, it would be to support unmanned and future manned missions to Mars and unmanned missions beyond Mars,” he explains.
The Business of Space
“The South African space economy is very small,” says Khatri. “We’re currently looking at an industry development framework. A process is under way to look at current capabilities in the country and what needs to be done to ensure a sustainable South African space sector. Obviously, a fully funded national space programme is required. To compete in the global market, we need competitive technology and to focus on niche areas. Our market would be global. Over the next three years, more than three thousand satellites will be built. What could South Africa supply into these satellites? The local industry needs funding for research and development (R&D). That can only come through a space programme. Support from a national space programme would allow the development of unique South African intellectual property that could be used commercially.”
Nevertheless, in addition to private- sector South African companies that process and market products built on satellite imagery, there is a local private- sector satellite and satellite components and systems manufacturing sector. It is indeed small, but it is enjoying success.
“The private space sector does not exist in isolation,” explains Mostert. “In South Africa, it is the result of years and years of aerospace investment by government. We are building on the legacy and setup to give back through training programmes and through R&D. The private space sector in South Africa is an example of cost-effectively solving a problem and then producing the same over and over again and so achieve a cost-effective output. However, what is critical to achieve this outcome is a critical mass of resources in the form of people, intellectual property and facilities.”
A major change in the global space economy has been the development of privately owned satellite constellations. SCS Aerospace Group has partnered with European company SSBV to develop and market high-reliability satellite components. The South African business NewSpace (a joint venture between SCS Aerospace and SSBV) now exports these to 12 countries.
(SCS Aerospace Group also has a successful space advisory business and a social entrepreneurship enterprise Space for Development Foundation. The latter focuses on unlocking socioeconomic benefits in partnership with other corporates.)
This success led to the group setting up subsidiary SCS Space to build entire satellites. It specialises in turnkey satellites. Its first satellite is an investment by the group for the purpose of pioneering a number of new satellite constellations. With a mass of 2.5 kg, the satellite (nSight-1) is now operational in space. Despite its small size, it has a 30 m resolution imager, developed by SCS and marketed as the Gecko. “The imager is proving very effective and delivering imagery of real value in terms of agricultural information and environmental monitoring,” he reports.
The group is developing its own nanosatellite programme, nSight. “The programme is cofunded but we are the mission owner,” he says. nSight-1 was launched last year. nSight-2 and nSight-3 are being planned, with the former to be launched next year and the latter in 2020. “They are intended to advance agricultural applications and to act as precursors for a potential agricultural constellation.”
“SCS Aerospace’s future lies in unlocking benefits for our customers,” sums up Mostert. “Different customers seek different benefits. That will be our focus for the next ten years. We will be taking advantage of the availability of capital and of advances in manufacturing and miniaturisation. Today, it is cheaper to build and deploy a whole constellation of small satellites than it was to build and deploy a single satellite a decade ago. Ten years ago, we coined a name: Satellite Commercial Services. Then, it was an oxymoron. Today, there are many grounds for it to [become] reality. One can have commercial space companies – and in South Africa.”