SA satellite 'performing well'

2010-10-04 08:23
Cape Town - As International Space Week kicks off, scientists at the CSIR's Satellite Application Centre (SAC) are pleased with the performance of South Africa's SumbandilaSat observation satellite.

"It's already a successful project," Corne Eloff, the Earth Observation Manager at SAC, told News24.

"SumbandilaSat was established as a project as a design platform for our engineers to get their hands dirty. And we launched this at low cost if you compare with other projects in the space world," he added.

The satellite was launched in 2009. The first part of the name, Sumbandila, is a Venda word for "lead the way". Its data is intended monitor and manage disasters such as flooding, oil spills and fires within Southern Africa.

"We're very happy in terms of the expectations of the project. It was designed and built though the University of Stellenbosch and Sunspace designed the mission control centre," said Eloff.

'Beyond expectations'

According to him, they had expected the project to be a test for a future operational satellite, but the satellite had performed better than planned.

"It's performing far beyond our expectations and we never expected a fully operational satellite. You get a useable image every second day - that's way beyond expectations."

The satellite has a three-year lifespan, but the SAC team dismissed suggestions that this was a short time span for an expensive exercise.

"From an engineering perspective, space is a harsh environment. There's no protection against solar radiation and if something goes wrong, you can't just go up there and fix it," said Riaan van den Dool of SAC.

"At 80kg, it's a tin can when you compare it to some of the other satellites in space, but it will go on and on, and as long as the data is useable, we'll keep it in operation," he added.

SAC took over the programme in April 2010 after initial funding and development by the Department of Science and Technology. Eloff estimated the cost of the project to be about R26m for the satellite and about R12m for the launch.

"In this industry, typically you spend about €100m to €150m to develop one satellite, and we did it for much less than that. My dream is to say South Africa can create an industry. We can create prestige on the African continent to stimulate our bright engineers or we'll lose them."

Technological innovation

Eloff said the technology meant that SA could become a production country where space technology was concerned, instead of a "buying" nation, but did not want to compete with developed nations in space technology. He added that the technology would benefit SA.

"Look, it's a rocket science environment and we can't expect 40 million people to get into this area. Out of this, space creates a benefit to the industry, engineering and computer science."

"The microwave is an example of technology from a space development programme," said Van den Dool.

He said the benefit of local technological innovation was that it was informed by the "user requirements", which meant that the country could direct specific space research.

"It's how we plough back to the man in the street," said Eloff.

He added that there was a 20 year programme to re-establish South Africa's launching programme, and he expected another satellite in space by 2018, but that the people working at SAC were a small group.

"People here are humble and crazy people and they have such a passion for what they do in this small community."

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