Foundations being laid for launch of SA programmed, Infant Space agency said it

Friday, February 17th 2012. | Science News

resized_preparingThe South African National Space Agency (Sansa) was formally launched on December 9, 2010, but began operations on April 1, 2011. It absorbed the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research’s Satellite Applications Centre (SAC) at Hartebeeshoek, west of Pretoria, and the Hermanus Magnetic Observatory (HMO), which fell directly under the National Research Foundation. Sansa is now approaching the end of its first financial year (March 31).

“Things have gone well, notwithstanding the challenges of setting up a new entity and incorporating entities with their own ways of operating and their own ethos,” reports Sansa CEO Dr Sandile Malinga. “It has been a great success. Integration hasn’t hampered what we do.”

Currently, the agency is divided into four divisions – Earth Observation, Space Operations, Space Engineering and Space Science. Earth Observation and Space Operations together formed the SAC and remain co-located at Hartesbeesthoek and under common management. Space Science is the new name for the HMO.

Together, Earth Observation and Space Operations have some 70 staff, Space Science has a complement of about 40 and head office adds another 30 or so, for a total staff of around 140. (Space Engineering is still largely a paper division, with most of the country’s specialists in this field currently employed by universities, the private sector, or the Institute for Satellite and Software Applications of the Department of Communications, which is not yet part of Sansa.) In addition to these divisions, Sansa designates human capital development and science advancement and public engagement as crosscutting focus areas.

The creation of the agency has really opened the door to international cooperation in space, reports Space Science MD Dr Lee-Anne McKinnell. In the ten or so months Sansa has been functioning, it has already hosted two international space conferences – “great for our scientists, great for our morale”.

Overseas agencies now know who to contact in South Africa for cooperative projects regarding space. “Space – you can’t do it alone,” points out Malinga. “One has to partner with other nations and focus on niche areas of expertise. Everyone works together in space, at different levels and in different ways. But there are open partnerships all around. We partner with just about everyone. But, obviously, some partners are more important, more strategic.”

Sansa is now looking more and more to the future. “By the start of the next financial year, we think we’ll have smoothed out challenges and will be able to focus on our core functions,” says Malinga.

A key objective for 2012 is the development of the National Space Programme (NSP). The NSP will be the means whereby the already approved National Space Strategy will be implemented. Sansa launched the process of creating the space programme late last year. Central to this process are four teams of experts, each covering one of the agency’s operational divisions. In total, these teams comprise 40 to 50 specialists. In addition, the agency is seeking to consult stakeholders – that is, those organisations that have a direct interest in he outcomes of the space programme. The online stakeholders forum, which includes a consultative workspace, now has about 120 registered members.

Further, it is hoping to get as much public participation as possible in the development of the NSP. To this end, it has launched a public participation portal on its website (www.sansa.org.za). There is also the opportunity to contribute to and follow the process on Twitter or Facebook. “We need to be consultative, as widely as possible, within a limited period,” explains NSP project manager Renier Balt. Members of the public wishing to participate will have to register on the website. They will then have access to a documents library, a discussion area and a window giving links regarding space (such as a link to pictures from space and a link to information on Cubesats – very small, or nano-, satellites, in South Africa).

Space Operations

The entity now called Sansa Space Operations can trace its history back to the dawn of the space age and has some 50 years of proud history in supporting space missions, mainly unmanned but also some manned, including a number of the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (Nasa’s) Apollo missions to the moon. With constantly updated equipment and systems (some of which are owned by foreign clients but operated by Space Operations) and an ever-expanding clientele, it carries out launch support, telemetry, tracking and control (TT&C), in-orbit testing, and mission control and space navigation. Its customers comprise national and international space agencies and commercial companies.

So far this financial year, Space Operations has supported 17 launches, and aims to have supported 25 by March 31. “This is about 40% of the world market, excluding military launches,” highlights Malinga. “That’s fairly good.” Recent major launches that were supported from Hartebeeshoek include the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO)/Centre National d’Études Spatiales (French space agency) Megatropics meteorological satellite, and the joint Nasa/Comision Nacional de Actividades Espaciales (Argentinian space agency) Aquarius scientific satellite (which will measure the salinity of the earth’s oceans).

But the really big mission supported by Space Operations was Nasa’s $2.5-billion Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), launched on November 26 and carrying the 900 kg mass Curiosity rover to the Red Planet. Regarding this mission, the TT&C team monitored the crucial separation of the MSL spacecraft from the Centaur upper stage of the Atlas V launch rocket, relaying the data and live images back to Launch Control at Cape Canaveral, in Florida.

For the next financial year, Space Operations hopes to support another 25 launches or so. “There is,” Malinga points out, “a limit to what can be done.”

Regarding in-orbit testing – which tests a satellite’s health and operational capabilities after it is launched – the division did this for three spacecraft this financial year, and is seeking to increase this to five by the next financial year. “In-orbit testing is usually done by the space agencies themselves, but we are now getting requests from them to do it,” he explains. “It’s a new market for us. In part, it is due to our location.”

Mission control and space navigation became part of Space Operations’ repertoire with the launch of South Africa’s own Sumbandila earth observation microsatellite. Despite setbacks, the mission has been deemed a success (see Engineering News February 3, 2012; in that story, Malinga pointed out: “We collected about 1 000 images – cloud-free, usable images. We collected images of the floods in Namibia and of the aftermath of the tsunami in Japan. We used it to monitor fire scars in the Kruger National Park. We promoted capacity development. It was extensively used by radio amateurs”).

“We’ve analysed what happened with Sumbandila. We’ve found that most of the on-board malfunctions happened when it was in the region known as the South Atlantic Anomaly,” he reveals. The South Atlantic Anomaly is the region where the Van Allen radiation belts, which surround the earth like gigantic invisible doughnuts, come closest to the surface of our planet, as low as 200 km to 300 km above sea level. The Van Allen radiation belts trap and hold charged particles released from the sun in what is called the solar wind. Spacecraft travelling through the Van Allen belts are thus subjected to extremely intense radiation, and Sumbandila, a technology demonstrator, was not properly hardened against radiation and had no backup systems.

For the future, NSP Space Operations expert team member and Space Operations TT&C manager Eugene Avenant argues that the primary focus of the division should remain “service provision for local and foreign space system owners, users and operators”, which would include the other divisions of Sansa. “We know what we’re doing, we know our customers.”

But future developments could include the expansion of South Africa’s own TT&C infrastructure to make mission control of future national satellites easier and more effective by increasing significantly the amount of time mission control could communicate with the spacecraft each day. To this end, a second, fully operational, mission control and TT&C centre could be established at Denel’s Overberg Test Range in the far south of the country, not far from Africa’s southernmost point, Cape Agulhas, while a South African-owned TT&C facility could be installed at the Sanae-VI base in Antarctica (Sanae stands for South African National Antarctic Expedition). In addition, it would be good if a friendly country would host another TT&C facility inside the Arctic Circle. These latter two facilities could be remotely operated.

Other possible future developments could include South Africa joining the European Geostationary Navigation Overlay Service, which is a satellite navigation system that covers Europe and Africa and a precursor of Europe’s worldwide Galileo system. Space Operations would then provide various services, including TT&C, in support of the system. Should South Africa decide to obtain a national telecommunications satellite, Space Operations would also support it.

Space Science

This division, formerly the HMO, can trace its history back to 1932 (although a precursor magnetic observatory had operated at the Royal Observatory at the Cape of Good Hope from 1841 to 1852). Still located at Hermanus, Space Science undertakes research into geomagnetism, atmospheric physics, ionospheric physics (the ionosphere starts about 80 km above sea level), magnetospheric physics (the magnetosphere is that region around a planet dominated by its own magnetic field) and space plasmas (such as the solar wind).

A key concern of the division is space weather (which is basically the influence of the sun’s activity on the earth). Not only can space weather have a direct impact on spacecraft, it can also affect terrestrial telecommunications and even power transmission lines. Although it sounds exotic, it can have a direct effect on everyday life, and Space Science is part of a global space weather warning system, being the designated regional warning centre for Africa.

“We have a lot of experience in the country,” stresses McKinnell. “South Africa has proximity to the South Atlantic Anomaly; is located in the southern hemisphere and has proximity to the Antarctic and islands, and is on the African continent.” Space Science already has a laboratory in Antarctica, at Sanae-VI.

In terms of recent developments, “we’ve rolled out our infrastructure for geospatial monitoring – the South African Geospatial Observation Network”, states Malinga. “This is a network of a number of instruments around the country to collect geospatial data. This data is transmitted to, collected and analysed at, Hermanus.”

For the future, the expert team on Space Science has identified five programmes for the division to pursue. The first of these is magnetic anomaly investigation, which would be centred on, but not restricted to, the South Atlantic Anomaly and would employ both ground-based and space-based instruments. The second would be a space environment programme, which would range from space weather to astrobiology. The third would be space science in remote areas, including Africa, Antarctica and the South Atlantic islands and the fourth, hazard mitigation and disaster management, which would cover threats from adverse space weather and provide local space engineers with the knowledge needed to protect future South African satellites from space environmental threats. Lastly, there is applied electromagnetics technology. This expertise is useful in many fields other than space.

However, the division will need good research infrastructure, in the shape of both ground-based experiments and access to space-based experiments. In this regard, the planned Ibsa-1 satellite will be invaluable. This scientific satellite, focused on researching the South Atlantic Anomaly, will be a joint programme between India, Brazil and South Africa (Ibsa). Most of its experiments will be provided by the Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas Espaciais (Inpe – Brazil’s National Institute of Space Research).

“We have been part of the discussion groups on the payloads for Ibsa-1 and we are partners with Inpe,” reports McKinnell. “Once it goes into the development phase, we’ll be involved. We’re very excited it will be a space science mission. We have no timescale for Ibsa-1 yet, but we can work with the Brazilians using ground stations. They have equipment along their coastline and we have equipment on Gough Island. Collaboration – international, regional and national – is very important for space science: it’s a global science.”

Earth Observation

This is another very busy division of Sansa. “We estimate that we collected some 4 000 scenes of imagery last year,” affirms Malinga. These were received from a number of earth observation satellites operated by different countries. The development of the imagery archiving system is about 90% complete. “Our catalogue [of imagery] is up and running.”

Earth Observation does not just download images – it interprets them as well. “We’ve also run some workshops on Earth Observation imagery and we’re planning to do more in the coming year.” he adds. These workshops were attended by people from all over Africa and included one, in December, that was part of the European Space Agency’s Tiger Initiative, which is concerned with employing space technology to improve water resource management in Africa.

For the next financial year, Earth Observation wants to increase the number of images its receives to 4 500 and release more than 40 000 images from its archive to government departments and science councils for applied use (such as water management, urban planning and agriculture) and another 15 000 images for research purposes.

For the NSP, the expert team on Earth Observation highlighted a wide range of issues. For example, there is a lack of depth in the local expertise to analyse and use imagery. The country should create Earth Observation research chairs at universities and have graduate programmes, studentships and internships, bursaries and centres of excellence. International exchanges and cooperation, including overseas universities, are required.

“We need to look at user requirements, specifically at all spheres of government. Government is the primary user of space science and technology,” asserts Space Secretariat manager and Earth Observation expert team leader Terry Newby. “How do we get the data from Sansa down to the municipality? We have problems with bandwidth. We need to supply a [South African Environmental Observation System]. We need to address hardware, software and wetware (human brain) issues.” Other agencies are addressing some of these issues through information and communication technology (ICT) infrastructure such as LGNet and the South African National Research Network.

The Earth Observation division should be focused on “societal benefit areas” (SBAs). There are so many of these that, the expert team argues, they cannot all be met. So, for the short to medium term, the team identified four ‘flagship’ SBAs to be prioritised. These are crop monitoring for food security; water (understanding and monitoring the terrestrial water cycle); integrated spatial planning for development; and disaster management.

“We see a need for continually monitoring user needs,” says Newby. This could be achieved through conferences, symposia, surveys and by tracking international trends.

Space Engineering

At the moment, this is a nascent division and its future depends on government priorities and decisions. In the short term, its focus will be on the local development of Earth Observation microsatellites, to follow on Sumbandila.

“We need to create spacecraft with the necessary redundancy (backup systems),” emphasises Malinga. “Other satellites have backup systems and radiation-hardened materials. It will cost more. We’ll have to cooperate with other agencies which have technologies we do not have. We’ll need to buy some things. Getting others to share their technologies is not easy. Strategic partnerships will be essential and our partners will need to feel that they’re getting something out of the relationship as well. That’s always a challenge.”

“You can’t develop and operate satellites on a year-to-year ad hoc basis. Our hope is to have a long-term satellite strategy and programme,” points out Malinga. “Long-term programmes also allow technology development.” Sansa is involved in two agreed, but not yet funded, programmes.

The ARMC is the African Resource Management Constellation, a partnership between this country, Algeria, Kenya and Nigeria. (Algeria and Nigeria currently have operational Earth Observation microsatellites in orbit.) This was approved in 2009 and reaffirmed last year, and each country would contribute one or more satellites to it, with all the members having access to all the imagery from all the spacecraft involved.

The other is the Ibsa-1 programme mentioned. South Africa will provide the satellite bus (the actual spacecraft, minus its payload), which will be fitted with the predominantly Brazilian experiments and launched by an ISRO rocket. The Indians will also supply the ground segment for the mission and provide space expertise.

Beyond these missions, there is the proposal for a national science satellite, dubbed SASciSat-1. Further along, there could be a South African geostationary satellite, which could be totally or partially equipped for telecommunications missions. Another concept is a purely commercial satellite design, to be built in South Africa and sold to businesses and operated by them.

The only satellites currently under development in South Africa are two Cubesats. These very small satellites are typically produced by universities as training projects for engineering students and to provide platforms for experiments developed by science students. The University of Stellenbosch and the Cape Peninsula University of Technology are making good progress on these two spacecraft, ZACube-01 and ZACube-02, which are this country’s first forays into this low-cost category of spacecraft. “ZACube-01 is nearly finished,” reports Stellenbosch University Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering professor and Space Engineering expert team leader Herman Steyn.

Under consideration is the possibility that South Africa could develop some kind of national launch capability, which could range from suborbital rockets for scientific experiments to full orbital launch capability.

Human Capacity Development

Human capacity development is a major concern of Sansa and the NSP expert teams.
“Capacity building is going well,” assures Malinga. “Just for Space Science, we have 24 students, of whom 14 are master’s and doctoral students. There are also five postdoctoral students. There is huge potential on the Earth Observation side. We want to increase our training programmes. We have an intense outreach programme. We’ve had 7 000 learners come through our science centre and we have visited schools. We believe that Sansa is playing a key role in developing science and maths education. Space stimulates awe. We don’t need a great effort to create the ‘wow!’ factor.”

“Human capacity development is the cornerstone of the strategic implementation plan,” cites Newby. “We are contributing to the knowledge economy,” affirms McKinnell. “We provide enhanced human capital development as well as improved space capabilities. We build excitement in science and technology. We need skills – not just physicists, but also ICT specialists, for example. We need to develop the people for the future.”

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