South Africa is gaining ground in the development of space technology, especially in the field of micro- and nanosatellites, says South African Council for Space Affairs (Sacsa) chair- person Dr Peter Martinez.
He is also attached to the National Research Foundation’s South African Astronomical Observatory and points out that, although the country has made major investments in ground-based astronomy facilities, such as the Southern African Large Telescope and the Karoo Array Telescope, or MeerKAT, it has also made headway in the development of micro- and nanosatellites, and that some of these systems are being marketed internationally.
“South Africa is becoming a leader in micro- and nanosatellite development on the African continent. Students at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT) have developed the country’s first nanosatellite,” he says.
The 10 cm³ satellite, called Zacube-1, weighs 1.2 kg and runs on the same amount of power as a 5 W light bulb.
The satellite was developed over an 18-month period by CPUT students and staff members and was funded by the Department of Science and Technology.
Zacube-1, which will be launched into space from Russia in mid-November, will mainly be used to collect information on conditions in space that will be used by the South African National Space Agency (Sansa).
“There is a lot of potential for South Africa in the space arena. We need to ensure we comply with our international obligations, which is what Sacsa strives to do,” says Martinez.
He adds that the space council aims to create a regulatory environment that empowers the domestic space industry and creates predictability and certainty.
Recent developments at Sacsa include initiating a process to review the Space Affairs Act, which provides the legal framework for matters pertaining to outer space.
Martinez notes that the Act dates back to 1993 and that many developments have occurred in the space arena since then.
“During the review, various aspects, such as changes in the South African and global space environments, will have to be taken into account,” he states.
He adds that one of the key challenges for the industry is having clear guidance from government in terms of where the South African space programme is heading and the form and content of future South African space programmes.
“Industry is watching closely to see what the future of the South African space programme will entail and what opportunities it will present for industrial participation.”
Martinez states that, in the current medium-term expenditure-framework allocation, the National Treasury has provided about R100-million for satellite development. Sansa is working on a satellite development programme.
However, the business opportunities in the space sector are not only confined to the space segment.
“A lot of ground activity, such as satellite television and global-positioning-system revenues are generated through ground segments, which many people don’t take into account,” he adds.
One of the challenges facing the South African space industry is the brain drain. “Much of the expertise that resulted in the development of micro- and nano- satellites being developed in the country was generated from South Africa’s previous space programme between the mid-1980s and the early 1990s.
“Those people are now getting close to retirement and there is a window of opportunity to develop the next generation of South African space engineers, who should learn as much as they possibly can from their older counterparts before it is too late,” he says.
“Academic research and development has a role to play in human capi- tal development, as this could lead to industrial partnerships in the long run,” Martinez adds.
He also notes that there are several academic institutions in South Africa that offer courses on space science and technology. To date, most courses have focused on space science or space applications, rather than the development of space systems.
“The Western Cape is at the forefront when it comes to space science and technology studies, with the most direct involvement coming from Stellenbosch University, the University of Cape Town and CPUT.
He adds that other universities in the country are starting to introduce courses in space science and technology.
“Building regulatory capacity in space activity and policy, as well as the teaching of these subjects at university, is important,” Martinez emphasises.
He states that the potential for growth in the industry depends on its capabilities and how it could take up particular areas of technological development and apply them to other markets.
“There is potential in micro- and nano- satellites for industry to produce niche products and applications; there could be opportunities to develop a market in Africa for South African space products, not only through the selling of products but also through the supply of expertise to countries that need it,” he concludes.