Launch­ing satel­lite is space agency’s big fo­cus

Business Day - - IN-DEPTH - Sarah Wild

Every day, the new South African Na­tional Space Agency (Sansa) CEO’s todo list grows. But so do Val Mun­sami’s am­bi­tions for the agency.

The for­mer deputy di­rec­tor­gen­eral in the Depart­ment of Sci­ence and Tech­nol­ogy who has been in the role since the start of 2017, is filled with the ex­cite­ment of some­one who had been watch­ing Sansa’s ac­tiv­i­ties and now can mould its di­rec­tion. The agency, es­tab­lished six years ago to over­see SA’s ac­tiv­i­ties in space and the use of space-re­lated data, re­ports to the depart­ment, but “is an agency of all gov­ern­ment”, Mun­sami says.

With an area of 1.2-mil­lion square kilo­me­tres — about 10 Eng­lands — SA has a lot of land and ac­tiv­i­ties to mon­i­tor, in­clud­ing agri­cul­tural pro­duc­tion, ur­ban en­croach­ment and the health of wa­ter sys­tems. This does not in­clude its large ocean ter­ri­tory. The most ef­fi­cient way to do this is with satel­lites. In 2010, when the Na­tional Space Strat­egy was pub­lished, it noted that “SA is in­creas­ingly re­liant on space-based ser­vices and ap­pli­ca­tions, par­tic­u­larly those in the do­main of satel­lite Earth ob­ser­va­tions, com­mu­ni­ca­tions and nav­i­ga­tional po­si­tion­ing and tim­ing”. The coun­try now re­lies even more on th­ese ser­vices and de­pends on in­ter­na­tional satel­lites to pro­vide data.

But reliance on for­eign satel­lites means that South African satel­lite data users, which in­clude about 40 na­tional and pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ment departments, have no con­trol over what images they are sent, what the images fo­cus on and when they will get them.

SA’s satel­lite, EO-Sat-1 (Earth ob­ser­va­tion satel­lite one), has been in the pipe­line for years, al­though there has been lit­tle vis­i­ble progress.

“The de­sign is more or less done,” says Mun­sami. “The idea is to launch it in 2020.”

The agency is con­duct­ing a de­sign re­view to try to trim some kilo­grams — and with it mil­lions of rand.

“You pay per kilo­gram to launch,” Mun­sami says. “For a 400kg satel­lite, you’re go­ing to pay R200m just to launch. As much as peo­ple want to put things on there, we had to be re­al­is­tic in terms of the bud­get.”


The bud­get is about R500m, with 60% of con­tracts ear­marked for Denel Spaceteq and 40% for South African space com­pa­nies. The plan is for the satel­lite’s util­ity to ex­tend be­yond SA.

It will be an in­te­gral part of the African Re­source Man­age­ment Con­stel­la­tion, a planned col­lec­tion of satel­lites from Kenya, Nige­ria, Al­ge­ria and SA.

The four coun­tries agreed to the con­stel­la­tion in 2009, but so far, only Nige­ria has any satel­lites in or­bit. SA’s satel­lite “will be an in­te­gral part” of this con­stel­la­tion, he says.

Mun­sami says there is a lack of ac­cess to data on the con­ti­nent and a skills deficit.

In 2016, SA’s In­ter-Univer­sity In­sti­tute for Data-In­ten­sive Astron­omy launched the con­ti­nent’s first cloud-based re­search data cen­tre, the African Re­search Cloud.

Two proof-of-con­cept projects are be­ing run on the cloud: ra­dio astron­omy and ge­nomics.

The in­sti­tute was ini­tially formed to deal with the big-data chal­lenges that SA’s 64-dish MeerKAT tele­scope and ul­ti­mately the gi­ant Square Kilo­me­tre Ar­ray (SKA) ra­dio tele­scope will pose. But while ra­dio astron­omy has been a linch­pin in build­ing up SA’s big-data ex­per­tise, it is not the only field that needs to be able to process and an­a­lyse large quan­ti­ties of data. Earth ob­ser­va­tion could form the third pi­lot project.

“The re­search cloud can be used for space ap­pli­ca­tions across the con­ti­nent,” Mun­sami says. “For the Agri­cul­tural Re­search Coun­cil, they’re putting data racks in some of the [African SKA] part­ner coun­tries, such as Botswana and Namibia.

Says Mun­sami: “What’s cool about that is that you’re send­ing high-per­for­mance com­put­ing plat­forms into other African coun­tries and you’ll have this dis­trib­uted net­work that can link up to form one su­per high­per­for­mance plat­form.”

“Even at home, this sort of data man­age­ment would make a big dif­fer­ence. Var­i­ous gov­ern­ment departments have their own data sets and data bases. We need to plug into those data bases and make that in­for­ma­tion avail­able na­tion­ally.

“Once we start to con­verge data sets, that’s where the huge po­ten­tial lies.”

Mun­sami puts a lot of stock in the AU’s plans for space and skills de­vel­op­ment.

He chairs the AU com­mit­tee tasked with de­vel­op­ing Africa’s space plans.

“If you look at the space pol­icy space, there’s a trans­for­ma­tion hap­pen­ing in terms of how much gov­ern­ments are ac­tu­ally spend­ing on sci­ence and tech­nol­ogy. A few years ago, some African gov­ern­ments weren’t spend­ing any­thing. Africa should be play­ing in this space,” Mun­sami says.

“We don’t want for­eign en­ti­ties com­ing in and de­ter­min­ing how things should be done. Africa needs to do this on its own,” he says.

Mun­sami aims to po­si­tion Sansa as a driv­ing force in those de­vel­op­ments.

His first or­der of busi­ness, though, is to con­duct a strate­gic re­view of what Sansa does and what the gov­ern­ment has man­dated it to do.

“From that, we can start ex­plor­ing other op­por­tu­ni­ties. For ex­am­ple, Sansa is not in­volved in satel­lite com­mu­ni­ca­tions; we’re not in­volved in nav­i­ga­tion and po­si­tion­ing to the ex­tent that we’d like,” he says.

“Those are ar­eas that we think have huge ben­e­fits for the coun­try and we need now to go and ex­plore those op­por­tu­ni­ties,” Mun­sami says.


Progress: Val Mun­sami says the de­sign of SA’s first satel­lite is al­most com­plete.

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