SA universities selling satellite parts abroad
ACADEMIC institutions are selling their nanosatellite technology internationally, taking a step towards fulfilling the government’s vision of SA as a manufacturer of niche space components, but the industry still has no policy cohesion or a national space programme.
Satellite production has been highlighted by the Departments of Science and Technology and of Trade and Industry as a hi-tech manufacturing niche, with space highlighted as a strategic area. Yet the fate of SA’s main satellite manufacturer, SunSpace, has been in limbo for more than a year-and-a-half.
The national space programme was meant to be published in June, but "last week, we submitted a draft to the Department of Science and Technology and they’ve reviewed the document and want us to work on certain areas and resubmit", Sandile Malinga, CEO of the South African National Space Agency (Sansa), said yesterday. He would not comment on which areas required revision.
The programme, known as Vision for 2030, will be a road map guiding the country’s space activities for the next 20 years. But certain elements of the programme were already being implemented, Mr Malinga said.
In her budget speech in May, Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor said that R100m had been earmarked over three years for SA’s involvement in the African Resource Management Constellation, a group of African countries that are putting satellites into space for Earth observation.
Ms Pandor said earlier that her department’s aim was to capture a portion of the global market for small to medium-sized satellites.
However, SunSpace MD Bert Cilliers said that although the government and the Cabinet had said they wanted to buy an equity stake in the struggling company, it had been waiting for years.
SunSpace, which was started by University of Stellenbosch graduates, is a microsatellite manufacturer and was responsible for SA’s pathfinder satellite, Sumbandila.
"The last public thing was (a response in Parliament) and the intention (to buy an equity stake) was confirmed…. That was in March (last year)," Mr Cilliers said. "We’ve hung on and had some small contracts from Sansa, but not enough to keep us going…. Many people are many months behind in salary," he said.
"The real dilemma is that SunSpace already had a space heritage in 2006 when we built Sumbandila … but the Sansa Act (creating the space agency) was only promulgated in December 2010."
However, on a smaller scale, South African universities — Stellenbosch University and the Cape Peninsula University of Technology — have been selling nanosatellite components on the global market. A standard CubeSat unit is a cube of 10cm³ with a mass of 1kg. They can be stacked to make a larger satellite. They have payloads that allow the investigation of certain aspects of space.
The Cape Peninsula University of Technology said recently it would launch the first South African CubeSat by the end of the year. The manufacturing and launch have been bankrolled by the Department of Science and Technology. It was designed in conjunction with Sansa, and would monitor space weather.
But for the international CubeSat industry, Cape Peninsula University of Technology has produced communications components for CubeSats, programme director Robert van Zyl said this week.
Stellenbosch University had developed four components that could be used to control nanosatellites smaller than 10kg, Herman Steyn, a satellite engineering specialist at the university, said earlier this year. Prices of these components were between €600 and €4,600.
However, South African Space Council head Peter Martinex said yesterday that the CubeSat programme was mainly a human capital development initiative.