International collaboration is essential for a successful South African space programme. “The future of the South African space industry lies in international collaboration in satellite constellations,” affirms South African private-sector space enterprise SCS Aerospace Group executive chairperson Sias Mostert.
“Space economics is tough,” he highlights. “The challenge with a space programme in South Africa is that, if you invest in a satellite, it sees the whole world every day. But South Africa is only a small part of the global landmass. “So, if the satellite is used only when it is over South Africa, it is very expensive. But if the satellite is part of an international constellation to which, for example, four countries each contribute one satellite, then each country gets access to the data from four satellites for the price of one! And they all also enjoy greatly increased coverage. “So collaboration is essential – then the economics start stacking up.” (South Africa is already part of one such constellation, the African Resource Management Constellation, whose other members are Algeria, Kenya and Nigeria.)
To be effective, a space programme needs critical mass. The desired outcomes also need to be matched with available resources. “Say it takes 20 man hours per year to build a spacecraft and it takes three years, so you need a total of 60 man hours,” he cites. “But if you can afford only 40 man hours in total and your programme runs over three years, you are in trouble! You cannot maintain a sustainable space programme.” Either the scope of the programme has to be cut, so it can be fulfilled with 40 man hours, or the budget has to be increased so that 60 man hours makes programmatic sense.
A problem in South Africa has been the failure of many development agencies, especially nongovernmental organisations, to grasp the great benefits space can bring to their endeavours. They largely disregard space data because they think space is expensive. As a result, the use of space to support the development of poor South African communities has been constrained. And this constraint has, in turn, hampered the development of poor communities. To try to rectify this situation, SCS Aerospace has set up a not-for-profit Space for Development Foundation, which operates in cooperation with other companies to address this challenge.
“Of course, the space industry employs idealists, people who dream of the future,” points out Mostert. “These people make an impact. And space activities inspire school learners to study maths and science.”
Regarding SCS itself, in addition to its foundation, it also has a consultancy subsidiary, SCS Space Advisory, and a joint venture with Dutch company SSBV – the South Africa-based NewSpace, which designs and manufactures high-reliability satellite components. Last but not least, subsidiary SCS Space designs and manufactures complete satellites.
The first satellite built by SCS Space is a nanosatellite, which is often popularly but misleadingly called CubeSat. (The initial nanosatellites were of any shape and mass up to 20 kg.) “The term CubeSat actually refers to a standard – a standard that is really important for the industry,” he explains. “It is a mechanical standard which makes it easy for nanosatellites to be accepted for launching. “It makes it unnecessary to separately integrate each nanosatellite with the launch vehicles. “For every launch, they are put into standardised containers, called launch pods, and then loaded onto the launch vehicles. This greatly reduces the costs of launching them.”
The company is busy with a programme designated nSight, with the 2.5 kg mass nSight-1, which forms part of this programme, in orbit and working well. It is fitted with an imager developed by the Space Advisory Company, named Gecko, which has a resolution of 30 m from an altitude of 400 km and is proving very effective. Next will be nSight-2 (due for launch in 2019) and then nSight-3 (later the same year). But producing individual craft is not the group’s aim. “We will not build nanosatellites,” emphasises Mostert. “We will build constellations of satellites, including nanosatellites!”