Two tiny steps for SA satellite industry‚ one giant leap in knowledge
Two minuscule South African satellites are winging their way to the International Space Station at the start of a mission to examine Earth’s “ignorosphere”.
The nanosatellites — one built in Somerset West by SCS Space and the other at the University of Stellenbosch — were among 28 launched from Cape Canaveral in Florida on Tuesday.
Travelling aboard a Cygnus cargo supply vehicle built by Orbital ATK‚ they are due to reach the ISS in around five days.
The satellites are part of the international QB50 project to explore Earth’s lower thermosphere‚ a turbulent region between 90km and 300km above sea level which is affected by solar storms and terrestrial weather.
B50 project manager Davide Masutti said a lack of information had led to the region being nicknamed “ignorosphere”.
Said Stephen Battersby of New Scientist: “In its unpredictable moods it can scatter satellites and scramble GPS‚ so scientists would love to learn more about the gas and plasma up there.
“But this upper air is far too thin to support research planes or balloons‚ while still thick enough to drag down spacecraft in a matter of months. Ground-based observations are no substitute for measurements in situ.”
Enter the satellites‚ which will de deployed in about three weeks by astronauts aboard the ISS. “We will have a string of pearls spaced out along the orbit‚” says Masutti.
The nanosatellites‚ measuring around 20cm x 10cm x 10cm and weighing around 2kg‚ will soon be dragged downwards.
As they spiral through the thermosphere‚ they will measure the density and temperature of atoms‚ molecules‚ ions and electrons.
Professor Herman Steyn‚ head of the satellite engineering group at Stellenbosch‚ said: “The science can only be done with the low-cost nanosatellites due to the short mission life.
“To collaborate internationally in joint space projects showcases South Africa’s satellite and space engineering capability.”
The Stellenbosch team’s next project is to work on methods to get rid of space debris.