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Opinion

Launch of pioneering nanosatellite marks a giant leap for SA's high hopes in space

ZACube-2 will help with travel, food security and infrastructure planning

30 December 2018 - 00:01 By MMAMOLOKO KUBAYI-NGUBANE

December 27 2018 marked a historic milestone for South African science in general and space science and technology in particular, following the successful launch into space of the continent's most advanced nanosatellite, ZACube-2.
The ZACube-2 took off at 4.07am with the Russian Soyuz Kanopus mission from the Vostochny spaceport in Russia's far east. The cube satellite left the Earth with other small satellites from the US, Japan, Spain and Germany. The ZACube-2 is designed for real-time monitoring of natural and man-made disasters and other emergencies.
Among other things, space technologies enable communication, how we commute from point A to point B, our entertainment, global navigation systems and space weather. Furthermore, flying or sailing, infrastructure planning, monitoring of disasters for management and prevention and even food security and agricultural planning rely on space technologies and innovations.
ZACube-2 is a technology demonstrator for maritime domain awareness (MDA) that will provide critical information about activities in our oceans. It will monitor the movement of ships along the South African coastline with its automatic identification system payload.
Weighing just 4kg, the ZACube-2 is SA's second nanosatellite to be launched into space and three times the size of its predecessor, TshepisoSat. It is a precursor to the MDASat - a constellation of nine nanosatellites that will be developed to give cutting-edge very high frequency data exchange communication systems to the maritime industry.
The South African government decided to build on the country's space legacy by investing in and expanding the space programme. SA's first satellite, SUNSAT (Stellenbosch University Satellite), designed and manufactured in SA, was launched in February 1999. SUNSAT was built by postgraduate students at Stellenbosch University. The SUNSAT programme was followed by a government-funded programme aiming to expand satellite manufacturing capacity.
The new government-funded programme gave birth to SumbandilaSat, launched in 2009. The SumbandilaSat programme spun out a number of companies that resulted in a very capable space industry in SA. This commitment to develop a vibrant space industry informed the department's inclusion of space science and technology as one of the grand challenges in the 2008 Ten-Year Innovation Plan.
The aim of the space science and technology grand challenge was to, in the long term, get SA to become a space-faring nation. Becoming a space-faring nation requires that SA be capable of independently building and launching craft into space. Institutionally, it was also imperative to have a space agency. The South African National Space Agency (Sansa) was established and officially launched in 2010.
To build the necessary space capacity, the department of science & technology launched a human capital development programme at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT) under its French South African Institute of Technology programme. The programme uses cube satellites as training tools. In addition to training and development of space engineers, the programme launched the first South African cube satellite in 2013; it is still operational and assisting with space weather research.
All these satellite build programmes have created a solid foundation and given a sense that we can hold our own in the space sector. Already a number of foreign satellites are armed with locally developed technologies.
Why then is the launch of ZACube-2 so special? A few years ago the South African government launched Operation Phakisa. The first of these Phakisas was the Operation Phakisa for the oceans economy. The logic here is that we can do more to enhance our economy from our ocean resources if we effectively monitor and improve surveillance of our 4,000km coastline. To this end the department, with the department of environmental affairs, supported the development of a national oceans and coastal information management system.
The system is now operational, but for satellite data acquisition it relies on foreign satellites.
The department of science & technology invested R16.5m at CPUT for the ZACube project in support of Operation Phakisa. Sansa, in co-operation with the University of Montpellier, the French embassy and the Paris Chamber of Commerce, manages the project.
ZACube-2 is inclusive, with students working on the programme comprising 70% black engineers. It has also been central in creating opportunities for black- and women-owned companies such as Astrofica and Luvhone to play critical roles in assembly, integration and testing, and ground stations.
Our second phase of the MDASat constellation has now started, and will add five more cubesats. The second phase will also bring huge technological improvements and the broadening of product offerings and space applications. The full constellation of about nine cube satellites will give 24/7 coverage and data crucial for monitoring and surveillance needs. We will be able to know in good time which ships are in our waters, when and why. We will be able to communicate with and report trespassers to law enforcement agencies.
Like any other sector, to survive our space sector will need to continuously reinvent and renew itself. We also need to invest much more than we do. Space technologies and innovations are making people's lives easier: a small-hold farmer in a remote rural area who receives timely information on possible rainfall; assisting governments in service delivery planning and resources monitoring; and aiding those in the financial services sector in their determination of risks and packaging of their products.
• Kubayi-Ngubane is the minister of science & technology..

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