Launch options for SA space rocket

2012-10-17 14:10
There are several options to launching a space rocket from South Africa, Mark Comninos has said. (Duncan Alfreds, News24)

There are several options to launching a space rocket from South Africa, Mark Comninos has said. (Duncan Alfreds, News24)

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Cape Town - There are several options for launching a space rocket from South Africa, the designer has said.

"There're many ways you can skin this cat: Obviously, there is the Overberg test range in Bredasdorp to the east of Arniston. And that facility there is a nature reserve which has the capability to support a launch into space," Marcom Aeronautics & Space managing director Mark Comninos told News24.

The facility provides effective launch capabilities, but would only allow for flights to polar orbits, he added.

"If you would like to tackle more lucrative orbits such as geosynchronous orbits, then it's three options there: You could possibly launch from an area north of Durban, but closer to Richards Bay," Comninos said.

The would enable the rocket to fly east over the Indian Ocean and eventually to deploy its payload close to the Earth's equator. But Marcom has also investigated an ocean launch off the east coast.

"Failing that, you could always launch from a modified oil platform and that's done by a company called Sea Launch in the United States so that's an option."


The idea would include harbouring the launch vehicle in Richard's Bay or Durban, and tow out to sea for the launch. The goal would be to launch as close as possible to the equator.

"There are also possibilities of launching from Kenya. Kenya has a space port although it doesn't see much use at the moment," said Comninos.

"Launching from Kenya also means you have about a 5% improvement in payload performance," he added.

He cautioned against unbridled optimism, saying that one of the most important aspects was to establish credibility as a reliable space launch service.

"Initially, the objective is to establish credibility. Just doing one successful launch is not going to establish any credibility with a satellite owner. You'd have to do two or three successful launch to establish the credibility that an owner of a satellite will have a good feeling that, by launching with us, he's actually putting his egg in the right basket," he said.

Russian space credibility took a severe blow when the country lost satellites in launch failures, though the country has the oldest space programme in the world.

Marcom would be looking to launch smaller satellites before targeting more lucrative contracts, and the company requires at least R500m to have a vehicle ready in five years.

Financial support

"Once we've developed the credibility, we would like to look at those countries around that world that have developing space agencies or existing smaller industries who would like to launch smaller payloads of between 200kg and 800kg into low Earth orbit.

"Once you've established launch credibility and that market, you can then start looking at possibly providing launch services to the geosynchronous market which is much more lucrative, said Comninos.

The department of science and technology has provided some financial support for the programme but it is unlikely that it would be in a position to meet all the testing and launch expenses.

"I'm in frequent conversation with the department of science and technology and the South African National Space Agency so they're aware of what we're doing and we have made a proposal to them on our project. There's no real discussion as to where and when they would provide funding; I don't think they have the level of funding that is required in order to that," Comninos said.

One of the benefits of building an industry in SA would be the lower cost of a space vehicle, compared to the established players, he insisted.

"It's very difficult to say how much we can undercut the Americans, the Europeans; the Russians, but there is no doubt that we can build a launch vehicle that is as reliable as any other launch vehicle in the world, but comes in at a lower cost."

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