Watch this space: exciting projects in the works by SA's space programme

African governments, including South Africa's, are investing in elaborate space programmes, and some interesting results are beginning to emerge

14 July 2019 - 00:13
By , , rea nagel AND Andrea Nagel
An artist's impression of the SKA radio telescope in Sutherland, South Africa.
Image: Supplied An artist's impression of the SKA radio telescope in Sutherland, South Africa.

"Africa's space industry is undergoing a renaissance," says Temidayo Oniosun, Founder of Space in Africa. "All across Africa, governments are investing in elaborate space programmes, revving up the continent's capacity to see beyond pale clouds and harness the inherent power of space technologies.

"Modern space technologies have the ability to help Africa solve critical problems in agriculture, security, telecommunications and other sectors. Already, some countries have started to benefit. In Mali, satellites are helping nomadic herdsmen find water for their cattle; in Angola and Rwanda, satellites are used to connect rural classrooms to the internet and entertain millions with profitable TV programmes across Africa."

Carla Sharpe is the business manager at SKA (Square Kilometre Array) SA, an international effort to build the world's largest radio telescope, with a square kilometre (one million square metres) of collecting area.

She will soon be taking over SA's Africa programme in collaboration with our eight partner countries (Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia and Zambia) who supported SA's bid to host SKA. They aim to implement radio astronomy technology in each of these countries - to build the AVN - the African very-long-baseline interferometry (VLBI) network.

VLBI is an astronomical technique that uses widely separated radio telescopes in unison to simulate a single telescope hundreds or thousands of kilometres in diameter, producing the clearest, highest resolution images of some of the most distant objects in the universe.

Carla spoke to us about SA's space programme, Elon Musk and putting self-inflating telescopes on the dark side of the moon:

How advanced is SA's space programme?

SA's greatest strength in the space industry is in space science. We have a long history in this field. Our telescopes are really useful for astronomy. We're also really strong in solar weather - studying the sun and the impact on space weather, which affects weather on Earth, our oil pipelines and GPS.

SKA manager Carla Sharpe.
Image: Supplied SKA manager Carla Sharpe.

At SKA we have optical telescopes (the ones you look through, for example SALT, our big telescope in Sutherland). We also have them at the Observatory (in Cape Town, in the suburb Observatory) and we have radio telescopes. Our magnetic observatory is in Hermanus.

Does SA build and launch our own satellites, or do we buy them from other countries?

We have the capacity to build our own satellites in SA. We've launched quite a few and we're building one. We want to launch new satellite constellations that are SA-built and-owned. SA companies build satellites or parts of them. One such company is called Space Commercial Services, one is called New Space, another is Astrofica Technologies, a fully black-owned satellite technology solutions provider.

The satellites have different instrumentation on them. Some take images, like pictures of the ground and, depending on the resolution, you can identify things as small as plants. Or you can have hyperspectral or multispectral imaging, which use infrared or different colour bands to see different things like water and agriculture.

The satellites are used for different things: monitoring water health, or plant life, monitoring resources or animals, patrolling borders. You can take pictures so that over a period you can track movement, a herd of animals or vehicles like boats (used for illegal fishing) and cars moving.

We've also developed passive radar - all the TV signals bouncing around the atmosphere from DStv and the like actually bounce off aeroplanes, which makes it possible for us to track aircraft that turn off their transponders.

You have an exciting moon project?

It's my own project, called Africa2Moon, to put radio telescopes on the far side of the moon - a feel-good project. We want to show Africans can get to the moon. All contributions have been in terms of time or materials, we haven't asked for money. The project aims to launch a small spacecraft to the moon that will drop 54 (one for every country in Africa) self-inflating balls on the far side of the moon. We use these because they're a cheap and easy way to deploy a radio telescope. It will do "first-time science" - a major achievement worldwide and for Africa.

The spacecraft is controlled and monitored from Earth. We have European partners sending a rover to the moon in 2021 and we'll deploy a prototype from that rover. If the balls work, and don't explode, a European launch provider has undertaken to cover the costs of our launch to the moon. We're looking at going ahead with the full project in 2025.

A rocket launch can cost up to $100m - you don't want to waste one

There's a great deal of risk involved with taking these balls into space on a rocket. Our materials have to be secure, lightweight and non-dangerous to everything else on the craft. A huge amount of time and effort goes into co-ordinating all the payloads on these big, expensive rockets. We also have to book them in advance and find one that's available. A launch can cost up to $100m - you don't want to waste one.

What kind of data do you hope to collect?

On Earth we're surrounded by the ionosphere, which doesn't allow radio waves under 10 megahertz to get through. So when we look at space and at various frequencies in space in the electromagnetic spectrum, we can't see from one to 10 megahertz from Earth, so we don't know what information is in that low-frequency range.

Our telescopes on the moon will be able to detect frequencies within this low range, which is something no one has been able to do yet. We want to discover this new "stuff" in space - we have no idea what it will be. We'll do some specific experiments with the telescopes, like mapping the sun, but we'll also shoot into the dark and see what we discover.

We have another sneaky plan: the further apart your radio telescopes are the better the resolution of the pictures you get from them. We've spoken to colleagues from Saudi who are planning to launch a rover to Mars. If we can get our balls on the moon and on Mars and get pictures of the great distance between them we could potentially get fantastic images of things like black holes, galaxies and stars outside of our solar system, in very high resolution.

Any other projects?

I launched Women in Aerospace Africa to grow and enable women to get into the field, to network and support each other and to offer mentoring opportunities to excite young women.

We're also starting a training programme for the first female African astronaut as part of a bigger international programme. We want to send an African woman to the space station. It will be a selection process across all the African countries.

Are there African astronauts?

Sadly Mandla Maseko, who was training to be the first black African in space, died in a motorbike accident last week.

Mandla Maseko, in training to be the first black African in space, died on July 6.
Image: Supplied Mandla Maseko, in training to be the first black African in space, died on July 6.

Adriana Marais is one of the 100 Mars One candidates in the running to move to the red planet in the next decade. She's launched her own off-world training programme: a winter in Antarctica, a winter under the ocean and a winter in the Sahara to develop technologies and experience of being able to live in extreme environments.

What do you think of one of our most controversial South Africans in the space industry, Elon Musk?

He's a visionary trying to solve some of mankind's greatest challenges. The public tends to make him responsible for the issues he tackles, but he's applied his own time and money to solving problems for us all. There's a lot of pressure on him.

He'll do things in the next 10 years that will change the course of history. I wouldn't be surprised if he gets a colony going on Mars in the next 10 years.