Business Day

Launching satellite is space agency’s big focus

- 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.

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

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