SA space firm positions itself as low-cost, small satellite hub

5th September 2008

By: Keith Campbell

Creamer Media Senior Deputy Editor


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Small though it might be, specialist Stellenbosch-based enterprise SunSpace & Information Systems (SunSpace) has unquestionably established itself as a player in the global market for satellites. Of the three satellites ordered from SunSpace since its establishment, two are for an overseas customer.

And it is expecting another satellite order soon. The company has also exported satellite components to five countries on four continents. Further, it is a partner in an inter- national collaboration to develop a new- generation imager for use on satellites. And it has a joint venture with a major European space company.

SunSpace is a spin-off company from the University of Stellenbosch, building on the expertise gained by the design, construction, and operation, of SunSat – the Stellenbosch University (micro) satellite. Starting with microsatellites, the company has expanded its range to include small satellites as well, and can now offer a range of designs from a mass of 50 kg to a mass of 500 kg.

Including SunSat, the team at Stellenbosch has now designed four satellites, with the fourth now under construction. Of the other three, two have been launched, and the third is in storage, awaiting launch.

“We are part of the global space industry,” affirms SunSpace MD Bart Cilliers. “We are not a university reseacrh and development (R&D) team. We competitively design and build satellites on a commercial basis.”


SunSpace is one of the leading players in a revolution in the global earth observation (EO) satellite industry.

“It’s a paradigm shift in satellite design,” he enthuses. “It is comparable to the shift from mainframe computers to PCs a couple of decades ago.”

This revolution is based on the continuing miniaturisation of both electronic and optronic systems, which means that small EO satellites now have capabilities that once were the preserve of large satellites. And small satellites are much cheaper to design, build and launch, than large satellites. (Communications satellites are a completely different matter: their size is determined by the number of transponders they have to carry.)

Coupled with this is the use of commercial off-the-shelf (Cots) components in the design and construction of satellites. Traditionally, every component that went into a satellite was specially designed and built for use in space. This greatly increased the cost, and the time, needed to build and test a satellite. It could take up to 15 years to develop and test this space-specific technology, so it was often obsolete before it first flew. Cots components have proved, however, to be extremely resilient and perfectly capable of handling the stresses and strains of launch and operation in space.

This revolution was pioneered by a British company, Surrey Satellite Technologies Limited (SSTL), which was founded in 1985 as a spin-off company from the University of Surrey, following the design and construction of a microsatellite by the university’s Department of Electrical Engineering. In total, SSTL has built 27 satellites and other spacecraft (all of which have been launched) and has another 14 under manufacture.

The success of the com- pany was shown by its acquisition in April by Europe’s number one space company (and number three in the world), EADS-Astrium, in an all-cash £45-million ($89,7- million) transaction. Strikingly, in terms of the deal, although the University of Surrey retains only a 1% share in the com- pany, SSTL will continue to exist as a separate business, retaining its name and brand, with its own independent board of nonexecutive directors, which is not appointed by Astrium. SSTL will be free to compete against other Astrium subsidiaries and divisions.

Astrium had to agree to such terms, and give the necessary guarantees, not only to the University of Surrey but also to the UK Ministry of Defence and the British government, for the deal to go ahead. SSTL will, however, have access to Astrium’s R&D resources and facilities, while Astrium will have access to the university’s research and training capabilities. “The fact that SSTL has been bought by EADS-Astrium, and on such terms, proves the success of the model SSTL and SunSpace are following,” highlights Cilliers. “SunSpace and SSTL threaten the big players.”

“We use more modern technology, and use it more intelligently,” cites SunSpace business development director Ron Olivier.

“Our costs are much lower than those of the big players. Yet we provide the same reliability as the older, bigger satellites, but at a lower mass and size. We have a modular approach, using smaller, lighter systems, resulting in smaller satellites with the same protection, reliability and capabilities of the larger models, and with a useful lifespan.”

“A typical large, established technology, the EO satellite would be as much as 2,5 t in mass,” reports Cilliers.

“Newer ones, using, in part, new technology, are around 900 kg. We can provide the same capability with 500 kg.”

“Another advantage our satellites have,” continues Olivier, “is high agility in space. If an EO satellite is stabilised, its imager looks straight down all the time. Our satellites are designed so that they can look 30˚ left or right, in front or behind. This greatly increases their flexibility and usefulness, because a typical EO satellite’s overflight time for any particular point on the earth’s surface is just 14 minutes. We add a video camera to our satellites, with joystick control – so if, for example, there is cloud cover, any gaps in the clouds can be seen through the video link and the satellite manoeuvred so that it can image through these gaps. This feature is unique to us and is particularly advantageous when dealing with disasters.”

It is not easy for major companies to adopt the new paradigm being pursued by SunSpace and SSTL, partly because of legacy infrastructure, and partly because they need to maintain the capability to design and manufacture space- and mission-specific technologies for specialist military and scientific space- craft. Given that Astrium’s purchase of SSTL was on the latter’s terms, despite the huge disparity between the companies (Astrium employs 12 000, with 2 500 of them in the UK; SSTL employs 270), it seems a pretty clear-cut case of “if you can’t beat them, join them”.


The roots of SunSpace lie in Stellenbosch University’s Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering. A satellite engineering training programme was started in the late 1980s, with the creation of an electronic systems laboratory (ESL).

This was in support of what was originally a military spy satellite project, later civilian- ised as an EO satellite programme (‘Green- Sat’), which, in the end, was never finished and never flew (see Engineering News June 23, 2000, and July 7, 2000). (The programme did, however, result in significant ground infra- structure, including satellite test facilities at the Houwteq installation, near Grabouw, in the Western Cape.)

To this end, the ESL designed and started building a microsatellite, a project that was partly funded by the government, and partly by the private sector. When the official satellite programme was terminated, Stellenbosch decided to continue the microsatellite project and finished it. The result was the Stellenbosch University Satellite, acronymed SunSat.

But how to get it into space? Launches are expensive, even for microsatellites which are sharing a launch rocket with other satellites, and a commercial launch was beyond the university’s means. “Fortunately, Stellenbosch professors Garth Milne (who, sadly, died last year) and Jan du Plessis had contacts at Nasa,” explains Cilliers.

“Nasa had two experiments they wanted to fly in space, but had had no opportunity to do so. So it was proposed that these two experiments be put on SunSat, and that Nasa would provide a free launch on a Delta II rocket. So the deal was struck.”

Launched in February 1999, SunSat operated for just over two years. Originally, it was thought that it stopped operating because of overheating, as it had not been placed in the orbit the designers had hoped for, but into the orbit that was available. However, it is now certain that SunSat was hit by a piece of space debris and knocked out of action.

“SunSat was such a success that another country asked us to build a similar satellite for them – we still cannot reveal which country,” reports Cilliers. “When this request was received, Stellenbosch University determined that this would be too big a programme for a university department, so SunSpace was set up and spun off. The university still has a shareholding, and other shareholders include univer- sity staff who worked on SunSat.”

SunSpace is also an empowered company, through the Dusty Moon consortium, which holds 25%, plus one share, of SunSpace. Dusty Moon is composed of SRM Holdings, ICT Works, Umnombo Investments Holdings and Mazolo Investments, plus some smaller shareholders, including Dr Lerothodi Leeuw, a South African astrophysicist who works at Nasa, in San Francisco.

The new satellite was bigger than SunSat, which had a mass of 64 kg and carried a fairly small multispectral imager, operating in three bands (red, blue, and green) with a resolution of 15 m (that is, one pixel equating to 15 m × 15 m on the ground) at an altitude of 600 km – the first of its kind on a small satellite in any country. The new satellite – the Stellenbosch team’s second, SunSpace’s first – has a 200-kg mass, and has a bigger imager, with a panchromatic resolution of 3 m and a three-band multi- spectral resolution of 6 m. It is, thus, a small satellite, rather than a microsatellite, and was delivered in March 2003.

Thereafter, the company received an order from the Department of Science and Technology for a South African national micro-satellite, subsequently named SumbandilaSat (sumbandila means ‘clear the way’ in the Venda language), which is larger than SunSat but smaller than the export craft.

SumbandilaSat has a mass of 82 kg and is equipped with a six-band multispectral imager, which has a resolution of 6,25 m at an altitude of 500 km. SumbandilaSat is currently in storage, owing to delays in scheduling its launch by the Russians, but it is now expected to be placed in orbit at the end of this year, or early next.

Meanwhile, the launch of SunSpace’s export satellite was also subjected to delays.

Kept in storage in a dehumidified atmosphere by the customer, it was finally launched, from Russia, in April 2007, and remains in operation. So pleased has this customer been with its performance that another order has been placed with the South African company, for a larger satellite.

“This programme is now in an advanced stage,” reveals Cilliers.

“The qualification model has been completed and tested, and the flight model is under construction.”

A qualification model is a fully functional, full-size, satellite, used exclusively for ground testing. Fully fitted with test instrumentation, every aspect of the satellite is tested on various rigs, including those that simulate launch, and in chambers that simulate the environment in space. Vibration tests, acoustic tests, thermal tests, communications tests, electromagnetic compatibility and interference tests – the list is comprehensive. “The qualification model is tested almost to death,” he sums up. These tests allow the design and computer model- ling of the satellite to be checked, verified and refined. Then the flight model, which will actually go into space, is built. That, too, is subject to a whole battery of tests, but not to the same degree.

“And we are close to securing a contract for our fifth satellite,” reveals Olivier. “It will be much larger with a much better resolution imager.”

The company has also produced components for satellites built in other countries. “We built a boom and a star camera for Australia’s FedSat. We made an imager for South Korea’s KitSat – indeed, we provided a lot of tech- nology transfer to the Koreans when they were just starting their programme,” reports Olivier. “We supplied some satellite control reaction wheels to Brazil’s National Institue of Space Research and for an Italian company, Carlo Gavassi. And we built a magnetometer for Germany’s Safir 2 satellite. We are collabor- ating with a major European company to provide imagers in joint proposals to third countries – the European company has market access to countries that we don’t.”

SunSpace is also a member of an inter- national (South African/Belgian) consortium, developing a new imager, known as the Multi-Sensor Microsatellite Imager (MSMI). The other South African members of the consortium are the Agricultural Research Council, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, and the Engineering Faculty at Stellenbosch, while the Belgian partners are a company named OIP, and the Catholic University of Leuven. Funding is from the Innovation Fund in South Africa and from the Belgian government.

“We’ve basically completed the prototype,” states Cilliers. “It combines in one instrument panchromatic, hyperspectral and multispectral imaging. Hyperspectral imaging from space is all the rage now – its potential is enormous and very exciting, and it reveals a lot of environmental information.” While the MSMI’s multispectral capability covers six colour bands, its hyperspectral capability covers 200 colour bands. “The Belgians are very eager to get the MSMI into space,” he adds. “There is a lot of interest in it in Europe.”


“For South Africa to successfully compete in the world, the key is superior technology,” argues Cilliers. “But South Africa has an appallingly low number of pupils leaving high school with adequate qualifications for science and technology. Space stimulates the interest of young people. Having a national ability to design and build satellites, and having a national satellite in space, are a great motivator to study science.” “Dr Leeuw, and all at SunSpace, not least executive chairperson Themba Vilakazi, are passionate about stimulating interest in space among all South African learners,” highlights Olivier.

SunSpace started its own internship programme at the end of 2005, recruiting eight interns in 2006 for two-year internships. They spent the first year receiving a good grounding in all aspects of satellite engineering. In the second year, they specialised in different disciplines, such as software, or systems integration. “Six of the original eight are still with us, and they are now fully fledged members of our engineering teams,” reports Cilliers. “Once we get a new contract, we will recruit a new batch of interns.”

The company employs 71 people, most highly skilled and many with postgraduate qualifications.

Edited by Creamer Media Reporter




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