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SA space agency’s new strategic plan incorporates continental initiatives

STAR FORECASTERS A view of SANSA Space Science’s current Space Weather Centre

Photo by SANSA

GLOBALLY RESPECTED SANSA Space Operations’ main site at Hartbeesthoek

Photo by SANSA

31st January 2020

By: Rebecca Campbell

Creamer Media Senior Deputy Editor


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The South African National Space Agency (SANSA) has developed a new strategic plan for the next five years, which it hopes will soon be approved and implemented with effect from April 1, the start of the next financial year.

“In terms of the process, we’re going through the formal approvals,” SANSA CEO Dr Val Munsami tells Engineering News & Mining Weekly.

“The new strategic plan has a wider focus than our previous one, looking at Africa and not just South Africa,” he explains. “This is because of the space initiatives spearheaded by the African Union. Also, the Southern African Development Community (SADC) has now agreed to set up a SADC space programme, for which we are currently developing a SADC Space Strategy.”

SANSA comprises a head office and four divisions, each executing its own specialist programme. These are, in alphabetical order, Earth Observation, Space Engineering, Space Operations and Space Science. Earth Observation and Space Engineering are based in Pretoria, Space Operations at Hartbeesthoek, west of Pretoria – all in Gauteng province – while Space Science is based at Hermanus, south-east of Cape Town, in the Western Cape province.

“A lot of what we are doing is unique in Africa – for example, space weather and our space science initiatives in Antarctica and the islands,” he highlights. “We’re also the only African country with the capability to design, develop and build satellites. We have the strongest Earth observation capabilities in Africa. Space Operations is also unique in Africa in that it is an entirely local, South African, facility; the equivalent centre in Kenya is owned and staffed by the Italians.”

Under the new strategic plan, SANSA will be looking at new areas of activity. One such area is satellite telecommunications. “We are in early talks with the Department of Telecommunications and Postal Services to provide them with services we already provide to international telecommunications satellite operators.

“We’re also looking at a satellite navigation augmentation system for Southern Africa. A successful pilot project has been done in cooperation with the UK Space Agency. This reduced the system error from approximately 10 m to 1 m. We’re looking at turning this into an operational capability.”

Earth Observation

The Earth Observation division acquires, processes, archives and disseminates satellite imagery concerning the surface of our planet. It also provides space-based value-added products, such as human settlements mapping, forest change mapping and so on. This is initially done at national level, so customers can determine if they need more detailed imagery or not. Earth Observation is also responsible for enabling and coordinating South Africa’s space-based Earth observation data infrastructure.

“SANSA should be an enabler of the Earth observation sector in South Africa, not a competitor with other Earth observation data players,” clarifies SANSA’s Earth observation executive, Andiswa Mlisa. “We’re looking after the sandpit. We’re not playing in the sandpit.”

The division has two major priorities for the next five years. One is ‘sector development’ – effectively implementing its sector coordinating and facilitating role to ensure that it services the private sector and provides the required solutions for the public sector. The other is the establishment of a national Earth observation research agenda. Currently, while Earth observation research is being done in South Africa, it is scattered and no one has a full overview of these activities, which are required to position South Africa in the knowledge generation sphere globally.

“If we assess what is being done, and how well it is being done, we could identify niches in which South Africa is globally competitive in Earth observation and then further strengthen those capabilities,” Mlisa points out. “It would also serve to identify areas of Earth observation research that SANSA should undertake to provide a foundation for local applied research and product development.”

Achieving these ambitions requires, most importantly, two things. Firstly, SANSA needs to change its mindset, moving from an inward focus to an outward focus. It has to realise that the wider South African Earth observation community existed before SANSA was created, and they know what they want and can articulate their expectations. Secondly, the agency needs a grant mechanism to encourage cooperation by providing funding for innovative ideas in the sector. The Department of Science and Innovation (DSI) has acknowledged the need for this, and provisionally designated a Research and Development (R&D) Innovation Fund. “We’re working on the mindset change and we are in the process of securing the funding,” she assures.

Regarding the public sector, SANSA exists, and seeks, to serve all three levels of government – national, provincial and municipal. The agency has been quite successful in engaging and serving national government and the major cities regarding the use of geospatial information, but is also seeking to make district and local municipalities aware of the services they can access.

The agency can and does also provide support for other scientific institutions, such as the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, and for State-owned companies, notably Eskom. “Some of our services are free, and these services are widely distributed, including to universities,” she reports.

Space Engineering

“Space Engineering is the acquisition leg of SANSA,” says the Space Engineering executive director Amal Khatri. “We are responsible for the total life cycle of the national Earth observation satellite programme, from conception to the delivery of the flight model of the satellite. This is done by having project management as well as systems engineering skills within Space Engineering. We have Level 6 systems engineering capability, which means we undertake the mission analysis and the requirements engineering for what the satellite is meant to do. This, in turn, determines what the satellite will look like and what payloads it will carry.”

However, the satellite programme, EOSat-1, is running behind its original schedule, owing to a lack of funding. “At the moment, Space Engineering is inadequately resourced,” he reports. “We’re currently putting together a plan to ensure that our space engineering capability and capacity are properly resourced. It is important for government to adequately fund a national satellite programme in order to utilise the country’s space engineering capabilities to develop the right space capabilities for the country.”

“Regarding EOSat-1, we’ve done an independent programme review. A panel of experts has drawn up a report and this was sent to the [Science and Innovation] Minister,” explains Munsami. “We’ve been tasked to look at a more cost-effective approach. We’ve reduced the mass of the satellite and we are currently looking at achieving the optimum performance in terms of meeting the user requirements.”

SANSA Space Engineering would not build the satellite. That would be done by the local space industry. The country has satellite assembly and test facilities at the Houwteq site, near Grabouw, in the Western Cape. These were built in the 1980s and now need to be modernised, because the South African space engineering companies (which currently develop technologies, systems, subsystems and components for foreign space programmes) would benefit enormously from a modern local test facility that would allow them to ensure that their products meet the required quality standards. And the country needs a modern facility for the assembly and testing of its own satellites and components, systems and subsystems. “We have funding from government to upgrade the Houwteq facility to get it ready for satellite assembly, integration and testing,” reports Munsami.

Further, in collaboration with the European Space Agency and the German Space Agency (DLR), SANSA is looking at the possibility of developing a concurrent design and engineering facility at Houwteq, which would ensure that the country has all the necessary capabilities to design and develop satellites in a more efficient and cost- effective way. Such a facility (modelled on a similar facility within the DLR) would also be available to many other engineering disciplines. It could reduce the design process from about 12 months to four weeks and it would be the only concurrent design facility in Africa.

“We see Houwteq as a space hub, hosting a space business incubator, an R&D centre, and an educational centre for children and the youth to stimulate interest in science, technology, engineering and maths education,” states Khatri. “The infrastructure is critical, but we do require a fully supported national space programme to make sure that the facility is fully utilised.”

Space Operations

Space Operations has followed a coherent, consistent and highly successful strategy for many years, so the new strategic plan makes no changes to this. “We always strive to improve our services,” assures Space Operations executive Raoul Hodges. “We are continuing to increase the number of our clients and to host new clients. Internationally, we are seeing the rapid development of ‘newspace technologies’, which involve constellations of hundreds of nanosatellites and microsatellites. We’re gearing up to provide ground services for these to attract their business to South Africa. Our reputation in the space operations sector has enabled us to win the bid to host the premier conference for space operators globally, SpaceOps2020, in May this year in Cape Town.”

Another business sector for Space Operations is teleports. ‘Teleport’ refers to the transfer of data from a satellite into an Internet backbone (teleportation is totally unconnected with, and radically different to, teleports). This is also a growing segment.

The division is undertaking a major development. “We’re busy developing a new site,” he says. Currently, Space Operations only has the Hartbeesthoek site. The new site will be at Matjiesfontein, in the Western Cape. The environmental impact assessment for the new facility is now 90% complete. Once this is done and approved, the infrastructure will have to be established, including a fibre optic connection (a major fibre optic cable runs through Matjiesfontein), and the first antenna set up “to make the site attractive to customers”.

Matjiesfontein is being developed for two main reasons. One of these is to have a backup site to Hartbeesthoek, because the increasingly popular Ka-Band (a radio frequency band) is vulner able to weather and, if there is bad weather at the primary site (Hartbeesthoek), Space Operations needs to be able to switch to a backup facility. The weather at Matjiesfontein is “very good” for the frequencies Space Operations wants to work in.

“The new site is also being developed to allow Space Operations to offer deep space operations support – missions to Mars, for example – to the big agencies in global space exploration, who need deep space support,” he explains. “We’re hoping to have Matjiesfontein operational by mid-2022.

“The space industry worldwide is commercialising at an extremely fast pace,” he highlights. “The commercial sector is now playing a much bigger role in space. The participation of governmental and intergovernmental agencies in space activities is, in relative terms, shrinking. This is something we must be aware of.”

Space Science

The Hermanus-based Space Science division embraces a range of activities. It undertakes both fundamental and applied space science research, with a very strong research team, focused on studying the near-Earth space environment – basically the volume from the sun to the Earth. It provides magnetic technology services for national and international clients. And it is responsible for the country’s geophysical infrastructure – a network of unmanned ground sensor stations across the country and beyond, which record vital data for space science research. It has a vigorous student development and science advancement programme, which operates from the on-site science centre. Last, but not least, the division operates the only space weather regional warning centre in Africa, which monitors and does research into space weather.

Space weather can be defined simply as conditions on the sun, in space and in the solar wind, which affect orbiting technological systems orbiting the Earth. (The solar wind is the constant stream of particles that escape from the sun and radiate throughout the solar system.) There is international recognition that space weather is a global challenge, but one that needs regional inputs. In addition, SANSA has been designated by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) to provide applied space weather services for commercial aviation; the division is and will be remunerated for such services (ICAO has developed a global framework for such payments, which will be implemented in the near future). This means that every aircraft flying through the continent’s airspace will rely on SANSA for space weather information as part of its flight planning.

“We are going to make further investments in our space weather capability,” reports Munsami. “We have an approximately R90-million commitment from government for the next three years to build a new space weather centre, which will allow us to move from an eight-hour-a-day operation to a 24/7/365 operation.”

“The new space weather centre will have four main impact areas,” adds SANSA Space Science executive Dr Lee-Ann McKinnell. “These are high-frequency radio communications, global navigation satellite systems applications, radiation exposure and satellite communications. To do this, we will have to grow our space weather operational team, as we’ll need more forecasting capabilities. Programming and coding are extremely important – everything is algorithm-based and these algorithms will be constantly updated. We will also have to grow our research complement; an exciting thing is that a SANSA research chair in solar physics is being set up in partnership with a local university.”

In addition to the new space weather centre, the division’s network of ground-based sensor stations will be upgraded so that they provide data in real time. The DSI has agreed to provide the funding for this, which should take three years. For the future, it is hoped this network will be complemented with an “African Instrumentation Network” of similar ground stations spread across the entire continent. A funding proposal for this is being developed.

Edited by Martin Zhuwakinyu
Creamer Media Senior Deputy Editor



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