Three locally produced nanosatellites for the Maritime Domain Awareness Satellite constellation (MDASat-1) will be launched into space on the evening of January 13 as part of US aerospace company SpaceX's Transporter-3 mission.
South Africa's satellites will be launched aboard SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket, as a rideshare payload of the company's Transporter-3, or ISI Launch 36P, mission, and will be deployed in low Earth orbit at an altitude of 525 km.
The MDASat-1 launch is a significant milestone for South Africa, marking the first launch of a satellite constellation developed entirely on the African continent. The full MDASat constellation will be an operational constellation of nine cube satellites that will detect, identify and monitor vessels in near real-time in support of South African maritime domain awareness.
Transporter-3, SpaceX's third dedicated rideshare mission, will be carrying 105 spacecraft, including cube satellites (CubeSats), microsats, PocketQubes and orbital transfer vehicles.
The launch is scheduled to take place from Cape Canaveral, in the US, on January 13 at 17:25 South African time. The launch can be viewed on the SpaceX website at www.spacex.com/launches. The webcast starts 10 to 15 minutes before lift-off.
The Department of Science and Innovation (DSI) has invested R27-million over three years in the development of the MDASat constellation. The DSI is implementing this work through the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT), says Department of Higher Education, Science and Innovation Minister Dr Blade Nzimande.
The DSI's funding and support of South Africa's satellite construction industry was reaping rewards. The launch of the first three satellites of the MDASat constellation follows three years after the launch of the most advanced South African nanosatellite to date, the ZACube‑2, as a technology demonstrator for the MDASat constellation.
"Since its launch in 2018, ZACube-2 has been providing cutting-edge very high frequency data exchange communication systems to the country's maritime industry, as a contribution to Operation Phakisa. This will further cement South Africa's position as an African leader in small satellite development, and help the country to capture a valuable share of a niche market in the fast-growing global satellite value chain," he says.
Although South Africa has been involved in space activities since 1957 on a relatively small scale, the national space industry requires specialised skills.
Nzimande says the lack of space professionals and engineers had prompted the DSI and the National Research Foundation to initiate a human capital development programme at CPUT under the French South African Institute of Technology CubeSat programme, with the introduction of a Master's in Electrical Engineering focusing on satellite systems.
"As part of this programme, students are taught engineering principles using CubeSats as training tools," Nzimande adds.
"CubeSats are built using the same engineering principles as any other satellite, hence highly specialised and advanced skills are acquired through this programme."