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10 October 2011

SA in an African space race - Plans investing millions into revitalising the Overberg Test Range in Arniston.

CAPE TOWN - The SA government is considering investing millions into revitalising the Overberg Test Range in Arniston, near the southern-most tip of Africa, to use it as a satellite launch facility. The facility could be used to launch low earth orbiting satellites for earth observation, research, and telecommunications.

Around ten countries in the world currently have such facilities.

This would spare SA the expense of launching satellites in other countries, and the frustration of always being at the mercy of others when it came to launch timing. This was SA’s experience when it came to the launch of SumbandilaSat, which was delayed at least three times, said Science Minister Naledi Pandor, on Monday. She was speaking at the opening of the 62nd International Astronautical Congress in Cape Town.

For the first time in Africa, the congress is attended by the heads of the world’s biggest space agencies, Nasa included, scientists and industry executives who have gathered to discuss the latest advances in space technology and exploration. Lubos Perek, the 92-year-old Czech astronomer who helped abolish Pluto as a planet, is one of the more interesting delegates.

The location of the event recognises southern Africa’s growing role in the world of space science. The region is emerging as a hub of ground-based astronomy, with work-horses like the Hartebeesthoek Radio Astronomy Observatory providing commercial telemetry, tracking and command services to a host of international satellite operators; and the likes of like Salt, one of the larger optical telescopes in the world, doing its bit to advance our knowledge of the universe.

In addition SA’s development of the Karoo Array Telescope (MeerKAT), which it is building to demonstrate its capability to host the Square Kilometre Array, has also earned the local industry global respect.

SA’s space programme is developing too, says Trade & Industry Minister Rob Davies: “We have been focusing on the development of micro-satellites.”

There is a growing demand for the telecommunications, positioning and remote sensing services offered by satellites. “Africa is involved in its own space race,” Davies says. He is not talking about putting people on the moon. Africa’s space race is all about using space technology to accelerate the achievement of development goals. “This is the technology that enables telemedicine and health, search and rescue missions and the management of food security issues.”

Other African countries have recognised this too. Earlier this year scientists in Morocco used satellites to help drought-stricken local authorities identify seven potential water aquifers. In August Nigeria sent two satellites into orbit on the back of Russian rockets. Where previously Nigeria outsourced the building of its satellites, these were designed and built by local engineers.

Space technology is so ubiquitous it is part of the plumbing of modern life. Every time a person makes a cellphone call, uses an ATM or consult a weather forecast, they are using space technology. African countries’ growing adoption of space technologies, he says, enables them to bridge the gap caused by the paucity of land-based communication infrastructure.

Of course Davies will also be hoping that SA can use the event to profile its small but technically competent local industry. It is difficult to define a space ‘industry’ per se. While there are about 74 companies in the ‘official’ aerospace and defence sector. These range from the likes of Denel, to SMEs with deep skills in software design and in the manufacture of complex composite materials, used in the aerospace sector. Around 20 of these are exhibiting their wares at the conference.

SunSpace, is perhaps the best known of these. It designed and built the SumbandilaSat, which is currently in orbit, but is in trouble after being damaged in a magnetic storm that emanated from the sun. While scientists are trying to bring it home, we take comfort from the fact that it was built to last for 18 months, and has lasted two years.

- Moneyweb