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.

Nigeria founded its National Space Research and Development Agency (NASRDA) in 1999 and launched its first satellite in 2003. It is also using and developing space technology that provides socio-economic benefits for African populations. During the past decade the west African country has made great progress in satellite technology via its establishment of NigComSat, a company tasked with overseeing the commercial and business operations of communication satellites.

In December 2011 NigComSat launched NigComSat-1R, a hybrid geostationary satellite with a 15-year lifespan, with assistance from Chinese scientists. This has provided improved and cost-effective wireless and internet coverage for Nigerians. The satellites NigeriaSat-2 and NigeriaSat-X, which provide high-resolution and medium-resolution images for commercial use, were launched from the Dnepr rocket in Russia in 2011.

The former was built by the UK-based Surrey Satellite Technology with Nigerian engineers present. The Africans then built NigeriaSat-X.

Ghana has also entered the space industry, and last year it launched the Ghana Space Science and Technology Centre to plan programmes in space science and technology. Angola also has a satellite in orbit, while Algeria and Egypt each have two.

SO WITH THEever increasing number of countries entering the space-technology sector, is there a genuine space race when it comes to Africa’s competing agencies?

Not really, says Dr Malinga. “African nations with space ambitions have been very cooperative with each other, so I wouldn’t say we are in a space race regionally. But saying that, you always want to be the best at what you do, so there is a healthy level of competition.”

As proof of this spirit of cooperation, South Africa, Algeria, Nigeria and Kenya signed the constellation partnership in 2009, which aims to put three or more satellites into space to increase each country’s data-gathering capacity. At a space-technology conference in South Africa last year, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research of South Africa cited the importance of data becoming more affordable for African countries, saying it costs €32,500 to buy three satellite images of Africa from foreign commercial companies

Although Nigeria is the only country in the constellation partnership to have launched a satellite as part of the programme to date, the other countries all intend to add their own in the future. Other African countries are also welcome to join the initiative, even if they do not have a satellite, as they can contribute a ground station or personnel instead.

In May, South Africa won the right to host up to 70 per cent of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) telescope, which will be the most advanced in the world when it is completed in 2024. The €1.6bn project involves the construction of more than 3,000 dishes and receptors across much of the Northern Cape province. Other African countries will host a small number of receptors and Australia will host the remainder.

“That was really big for us,” says Dr Malinga, “Although it is a sister discipline, the foreign-direct investment that will be pumped into the space-technology sector will be huge. It will change the perception the world has of Africa as a destination for cutting-edge space science.”

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