South Africa's first Cubesat, ZACube-1, is set to be launched into space from Kazakhstan before the end of the year. A Cubesat is a nano satellite, a standardised format developed in the US, with dimensions of 10 cm x 10 cm x 10 cm. (Although there are now also some bigger Cubesats, 20 cm or even 30 cm high, but still with lengths and widths of 10 cm.)
ZACube-1 was developed at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT) under the auspices of the French South African Institute of Technology (F'SATI). "It's South Africa's third satellite and first Cubesat," pointed out F'SATI Space and CPUT Department of Electrical Engineering junior engineer Etnard Louw. "We're very proud of that."
"It's currently in the Netherlands, undergoing pre-integration work," he reported. Because they are so small, Cubesats are usually placed in groups of three in special pods, which are then mounted on the launch vehicle. ZACube-1 is going to be launched with two other Cubesats from other countries. All three tiny spacecraft have to be loaded into the pod and then subjected to preflight tests. The pod is then shipped to the launch site and integrated on the launch craft.
Although tiny, ZACube-1 has a serious mission. It is fitted with a high-frequency radio beacon, which will be used to characterise the South African National Space Agency's new SuperDARN radar, which will soon be installed at South Africa's Sanae Antarctic research base.
Although the Cubesat's tiny on board computer (OBC) is a commercial system that was bought by the F'SATI/CPUT team, most of the systems on the nano satellite were developed by the local engineers, including the communications system. In addition, the software for the OBC was developed by the Cape Town team.
"The hoped-for life is two years," stated Louw. "Anything longer than that would be a bonus. But it always depends on the Sun's activity." Greater solar activity could fry the nanosatellite's systems and kill it. Lesser soar activity could extend its life.