South African ambition goes into orbit
ALTHOUGH IT will be some time before they compete with the likes of Nasa, whose Curiosity rover landed on Mars this week, a growing number of African countries have joined the global space race.
But rather than looking to the stars for signs of extraterrestrial life, or conditions that could support it, the African scientists at the helm of their countries’ fledgling space initiatives are more concerned with how their technology can be used to aid people on Earth.
Dr Sandile Malinga, chief executive of the newly established South Africa National Space Agency (Sansa), says African space agencies are all about helping a country’s inhabitants overcome the problems they face on a day-to-day basis.
“We can’t be like Nasa,” he says. “Our expenditure on space technology and satellites needs to have a direct and immediate impact on our citizens rather than exploring the far reaches of the universe. In the future we would like to explore what’s out there, but first we must develop.”
While some people question the wisdom of African countries spending millions of euro on space projects, given that the money could be spent alleviating the poverty on their doorsteps, the fact remains that the continent is custom-made to profit from satellite technology.
Despite significant economic and developmental progress, the infrastructure and land-based communications networks are still substandard but satellite technology could improve them. It can also be used to address issues that hamper the provision of necessities such as food and water, which are in short supply for millions of people.
According to Dr Malinga, African satellite data is used to help countries implement action plans that can mitigate natural disasters, such as floods and droughts that cause food insecurity, or outbreaks of diseases such as cholera and malaria, which are tracked by monitoring the water bodies associated with them.
“We are also involved in monitoring our natural resources, climate change, ecosystems, population growth and people displacement as well as the expansion of informal settlements across the country, which tend to spring up unexpectedly over a matter of weeks.
“It is our aim to ensure that all three spheres of government [local, provincial and national] improve service delivery, decision-making and policy-making and enforcement through space applications,” he said.
South Africa has no functioning satellites orbiting earth because its most recent low-orbit pathfinder satellite, SumbandilaSat, which was launched into space from Kazakhstan’s Baikonur Cosmodrome in September 2009, was damaged in a solar storm in 2010. Although it could still communicate with Sansa, it could no longer perform its primary data-gathering function, so in effect it was rendered space junk.
However, during its lifetime SumbandilaSat delivered around 1,200 images. Some of these pictures covered floods in Namibia, the aftermath of the tsunami in Japan and fire scars in the Kruger National Park.
A €40 million plan to build a new satellite and launch it within four years are already under way. South Africa’s last two satellites were built locally, so the scientists have sufficient experience. In the meantime, Sansa’s satellite ground-tracking facility in Hartebeeshoek, near Johannesburg, enables the agency to gain more experience through its contribution to recent global ground-breaking missions.
Sansa supported the Argentinian-Nasa SAC-D mission to measure ocean salinity levels across the planet to gain a better understanding of the water cycle. Last November it supported Nasa’s Mars Science Laboratory, which was involved in Curiosity’s landing on Mars. But the pressure to develop its own space programme is always acute, as other African countries are moving fast in terms of realising their own ambitions.