Eye in the sky to mon­i­tor SA’s oceans


IN SOUTH African wa­ters, be­yond the sight of land or any other ves­sel, a ship’s smoke plume rises into the at­mos­phere. Its heat sig­na­ture is writ­ten on the sur­round­ing air, and over­head — less than 2,000km away — a tiny satel­lite is watch­ing it. It is 2019, and the coun­try’s oceans are mon­i­tored by a con­stel­la­tion of nanosatel­lites trans­mit­ting live data back to Earth.

SA’s ocean ter­ri­tory is larger than its land space, and if its claim to ex­tend it is suc­cess­ful, its ocean ge­og­ra­phy will dou­ble.

This is why the gov­ern­ment, as part of Op­er­a­tion Phak­isa, is turn­ing to satel­lites. Op­er­a­tion Phak­isa aimed to boost the coun­try’s ocean rev­enue to R177bn by 2033, from R54bn in 2010, Pres­i­dent Ja­cob Zuma said at the op­er­a­tion’s launch in 2014.

“Nanosatel­lites were writ­ten into Phak­isa’s found­ing doc­u­ments,” says Robert van Zyl, di­rec­tor of satel­lite en­gi­neer­ing sys­tems at the Cape Penin­sula Univer­sity of Tech­nol­ogy (CPUT). CPUT houses the French South African In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy’s Cube­Sat pro­gramme.

“(CPUT) have been man­dated by the Depart­ment of Sci­ence and Tech­nol­ogy to de­velop ship-track­ing ser­vices on a nanosatel­lite con­stel­la­tion, MDASat.”

Short for marine do­main aware satel­lites, MDASat will be a con­stel­la­tion of nine CubeSats.

CubeSats, a type of nanosatel­lite, are a bur­geon­ing area of satel­lite-man­u­fac­tur­ing. They are cube­shaped satel­lites small enough to fit into a per­son’s palm.

At about 10cm, they weigh no more than 1.3kg. Up to six of these cubes can be stacked to­gether with dif­fer­ent pay­loads, such as sen­sors or cam­eras, on them.

They are sub­stan­tially cheaper than larger satel­lites, which run into mil­lions of dol­lars.

“A Cube­Sat can be built for about $100,000 and launched for much the same, de­pend­ing on the com­plex­ity of the mis­sion,” Van Zyl says. “For this rea­son, CubeSats were ini­tially used to train stu­dents for the aerospace in­dus­try, but now these small space­craft can be used to track and trace air­craft and ves­sels at sea.”

SA al­ready has one Cube­Sat in or­bit, ZA-Cube1 — oth­er­wise known as Tshep­isoSAT. This Cube­Sat, which is still op­er­a­tional, was launched by CPUT in 2013. It has a high-fre­quency bea­con that can beam mes­sages from space.

ZA-Cube2, how­ever, will be ex­pected to do much more.

As the pre­cur­sor to the con­stel­la­tion, it will be fit­ted with re­ceivers to pick up sig­nals from ships in the ocean, and trans­mit in­for­ma­tion back to Earth. BIG

ves­sels are fit­ted with au­to­matic-iden­ti­fi­ca­tion ser­vice (AIS) bea­cons that trans­mit track­ing and iden­tity in­for­ma­tion to nearby ves­sels and au­thor­i­ties.

“We have to make (the AIS de­tec­tor) small enough to fit on a Cube­Sat,” Van Zyl says.

CPUT is team­ing-up with tech­nol­ogy com­pany Three Stone in Som­er­set West that is re­spon­si­ble for de­vel­op­ing the firmware.

“ZA-Cube2 will also have a pow­er­ful (op­ti­cal) cam­era on it and a near in­frared cam­era — we want to see if we can dis­tin­guish fire or, ide­ally, the heat plume of a ship,” Van Zyl says.

It will also be able to de­tect AIS bea­cons. “That way, if you see a ship with no AIS bea­con, (you know that) there might be a prob­lem. This data is im­por­tant in ad­dress­ing piracy and il­le­gal fish­ing.”

The depart­ment’s chief di­rec­tor of space sci­ence and tech­nol­ogy, Hum­bu­lani Mu­dau, says the con­stel­la­tion — ex­pected to be in the sky by 2019 — will ini­tially fo­cus on “all South African ter­res­trial and mar­itime ter­ri­to­ries, in­clud­ing the exclusive eco­nomic zone and the con­ti­nen­tal shelf”.

SA’s exclusive eco­nomic zone ex­tends about 200 nau­ti­cal miles from its coast­line. This is an area in which SA has the sov­er­eign right to use the ocean’s re­sources — for en­ergy, min­ing, or fish­ing.

The use of satel­lites could iden­tify fish­ing ar­eas, en­sure the safety of ship­ping ves­sels, and do real-time mon­i­tor­ing of oil spills, Mu­dau says. Con­cerns around oil spillages were high­lighted in a Depart­ment of En­vi­ron­men­tal Af­fairs pre­sen­ta­tion to Par­lia­ment in April last year.

“We are lo­cated along a very busy ship­ping route with harsh ocean con­di­tions,” says deputy di­rec­tor-gen­eral for oceans and coasts Monde Mayek­iso.

This means the area is vul­ner­a­ble to oil spill in­ci­dents from ships, with more than 20 se­ri­ous marine pol­lu­tion in­ci­dents re­ported since 1994.

Mu­dau says the con­stel­la­tion would al­low for rapid re­sponse to prob­lems in SA’s oceans, “which is a crit­i­cal re­quire­ment for law en­force­ment and first-re­spon­der res­cue op­er­a­tions”.

The project has been al­lo­cated R98m over five years, which will cover the satel­lites’ man­u­fac­ture, launch, op­er­a­tions, and com­mer­cial­i­sa­tion, Mu­dau says.

The gov­ern­ment — through the de­part­ments of sci­ence and tech­nol­ogy, and trade and in­dus­try — has been push­ing satel­lite man­u­fac­tur­ing for more than a decade, but in­dus­try has not been kind to the high-tech­nol­ogy niche. SATEL­LITE

com­pany SunS­pace, es­tab­lished by a group of Stel­len­bosch Univer­sity alumni and re­spon­si­ble for demo­cratic SA’s first home-grown satel­lite, Sum­bandila, failed to at­tract the con­tracts that would sus­tain it, and died a pro­tracted death be­fore it was ab­sorbed into state-owned Denel Dy­nam­ics in 2013.

But CubeSats ap­pear to be a low-risk way into satel­lite man­u­fac­tur­ing, with both CPUT and Stel­len­bosch Univer­sity de­vel­op­ing ca­pac­ity.

Her­man Steyn was part of SunS­pace and now heads Stel­len­bosch Univer­sity’s satel­lite en­gi­neer­ing unit.

“Af­ter Sum­bandila, there were no funds to do the space project…. In the mean­time, I don’t want to do noth­ing. CubeSats are not ex­pen­sive,” he says.

“We have good en­gi­neers in SA, so I thought, ‘Let’s con­tinue with CubeSats’.”

Stel­len­bosch Univer­sity is part of QB50, a Euro­pean Com­mis­sion project that will see the con­struc­tion, launch, and de­struc­tion of 50 CubeSats.

The project aims to in­crease coun­tries’ ac­cess to space.

Stel­len­bosch Univer­sity’s spin-out com­pany, CubeS­pace, will be build­ing the con­trol sys­tem for these nanosatel­lites.

“Up un­til now, most CubeSats have been un­con­trolled, ran­domly tum­bling in or­bit. It is dif­fi­cult to po­si­tion your an­ten­nas to the ground sta­tion, your so­lar pan­els to the sun, your cam­era to Earth,” Steyn says.

“There are not many com­pa­nies — for­tu­nately for us — that sup­ply con­trol sys­tems for CubeSats.”

SA will be con­tribut­ing one Cube­Sat, called ZA-AeroSat, to the QB50 mis­sion.

Steyn’s unit is col­lab­o­rat­ing with CPUT on the MDASat con­stel­la­tion, by pro­vid­ing the con­trol sys­tems.

In turn, CPUT will sup­ply Stel­len­bosch Univer­sity with trans­mit­ter and trans­ceiver mod­ules that will al­low its CubeSats to re­ceive and trans­mit sig­nals.

Mu­dau says space tech­nolo­gies have a vi­tal role to play in SA, such as in telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions, Earth ob­ser­va­tion and space sciences.

And im­por­tantly, for a de­vel­op­ing coun­try with a high tech­nol­ogy skills short­age, they are a rel­a­tively cheap way to train post­grad­u­ates in space en­gi­neer­ing.

The MDASat project is ex­pected to see 60 masters’ de­gree grad­u­ates trained and ready to en­ter SA’s small space in­dus­try.

At about 10cm, they weigh no more than 1.3kg. Up to six of these cubes can be stacked to­gether with dif­fer­ent pay­loads


South Africa aims to add nanosatel­lites — called CubeSats — to its col­lec­tion of satel­lites cir­cling the globe.


A satel­lite pic­ture shows the coast of Cape Town. By 2019, it is hoped CubeSats will mon­i­tor our oceans.

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