SA firm readies space rocket

2012-10-15 14:01

Cape Town - A South African company hopes to stretch local engineering capacity by building a rocket and conducting launches to space.

"You don't need to be a gambler; you need to, first of all, have the technical capability to do it," Marcom managing director Mark Comninos told News24.

"You have to have the manpower versed in business as well as the technical aspects in designing, developing; testing rocket engines," he added.

Comninos began the company in 2002 after carrying out a two year feasibility study on South African capability, examining international best practice and space system evaluations.

"I selected those systems that would provide the most cost-effective launch vehicle or affordable launch vehicle that we could produce in South Africa," he said.


Comninos' proposal at the SA Space Association Congress in Cape Town revealed that most of the work had already been done and the company is seeking private funding to have a launch vehicle ready within five years.

"We do need to raise a certain amount of capital in order to do it, but since then [2002], I've spent the last ten years doing the detailed design on this vehicle," he said.

The trajectory and flight control systems, as well as fuselage and propellant feed system in the rocket are at an advanced stage of development and Marcom is looking to its business model for a local space industry.

"A lot of that preparation and planning has gone into: Where are we going to launch from? Who are our customers going to be? What are the legal and regulatory requirements that we're going to have to fit in within South Africa? Will the South African government cover the third party liabilities that space travel engenders?" said Comninos.

The company has received some financial support from the department of science and technology through the South African National Space Agency (Sansa) for development and testing.

"There is support from government; we are registered with the office on non-proliferation in space," Comninos said.

There is also oversight by the government to ensure that the company is not developing weapons of mass destruction.


"We've designed the Cheetah 1 launch vehicle as a cryogenic liquid rocket engine which makes it almost impossible to weaponise, but we are registered with the non-proliferation office and they are aware of our capabilities and we provide reports and feedback as to our progress," Comninos added.

The company has already developed a powerful rocket engine and is engaged in research to develop the combustion chamber.

"We're currently in development of a 10kN [kilonewton] rocket engine which we call the MAS 10K and that is a 10kN thrust rocket engine which is pressure fed and runs on liquid oxygen and ethanol.

"We've done 95% of the engine and we're currently looking at innovative ways to manufacture the combustion chamber," said Comninos.

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  • thadelphukem.completely - 2012-10-15 14:24

    Awesome news!!! Its about time SA shows the rest of the world how brilliant South Africans are... Lets show the world a thing or two i say...

      gerald.r.everett - 2012-10-18 08:51

      The world is aware of how brilliant South Africans are. Thanks for Elon Musk. One of the things you will learn from space is that the world really is one place. Everyone is brilliant when they can get over themselfs.

  • bouncing.betty.33 - 2012-10-15 14:44

    Ummm... how do you weaponise an engine? If you've developed an engine without a combustion chamber then it can't be an engine, surely? And 10 years to get to this stage without even a launch or a rocket.... it's not going to happen. Whilst I applaud you bravery and dreams, it is not feasible, SA companies cannot compete with the likes of NASA or ESA etc, and we are also too far away from the equator. Only something completely new and radical, and more importantly cost savings for the customer will change that... sad but true

      giepievz - 2012-10-15 21:56

      Seems like they are somewhere before where we were in 1990 when we already tested systems.

      aniken.vader.31 - 2012-10-16 03:38

      the medical, weapons and space industry are about the only industries thatare not cheapened by the chinese markets. Thus one CAN compete within this industry from fiscal perspective! If you look at SpaceX - the proof is in the pudding! IMAGINE we can channel billions of dollars FROM NASA TO SOUTH AFRICA! it can be done - the gov just needs to get their PRIORITIES STRAIGHT! The priority is to compete in the international market and seek NEW avenues to bring investment! BUT at the same time they SHOULD be fair and support their own citizens by USING that funding INTO infrastructure! OH the country this could be - what a beautiful dream for all...! And that means ALSO the people that are currently living in tin shacks...

      aniken.vader.31 - 2012-10-16 03:39

      let's no forget the SATELITE industry, the ROBOTICS industry and the NANO-TECH industry! There are SO MANY avenues to create industries! The power is in the mind that is applied to look outside the norm - which is farming and mining! If only...

  • faizieishlah.shabalala - 2012-10-15 15:02

    Anybody told SANTACO

      justin.sly.77 - 2012-10-15 17:28


  • marcom.aeronauticsspace - 2012-10-15 15:20

    Duncan, Thanks for your article. If I could clarify slightly. We have not "developed" a powerful rocket engine, rather we have developed a prototype engine with a thrust capability of 10KN but we have "designed" a powerful 86 ton booster engine to boost the vehicle off the ground and out of the atmosphere. We have done extensive development of the flight control system software and "design" of the major subsystems of the vehicle (i.e. propellant feed-systems, attitude control and fuselage system.) Your quote on development capital required is erroneous, we will require at least R500 million in development capital but yes, we have spent to date, less than R5 million on our development engine, the MAS-10K which is a technology demonstrator, not a flight qualified engine. Trust this will temper "BeenThereDoneIt's" comment. The development of two flight qualified engines will run no less than approx. R300-R400 million. Best regards, Mark Comninos MD, MARCOM

      bouncing.betty.33 - 2012-10-15 15:26

      Would your new rocket be cheaper to launch a payload in LEO per kg than say, SpaceX's, Nasa's, ESA etc?

      marcom.aeronauticsspace - 2012-10-15 15:40

      Yes, it would, Space X's Falcon 1e's launch price is no less than $10 million according to company spokesperson. We believe we can beat that price. Furthermore, Falcon 1e is mothballed and currently not in the market. NASA does not launch, they contract launches from the likes of Space X, Boeing, Lockheed and other commercial partners. Not difficult to beat sluggish and overhead driven companies such as Boeing and Lockheed, they are also not really in the smaller launch market either. ESA launches smaller payloads via the VEGA launcher at somewhere around 4x Space X's price. It is not difficult to compete there.

      bouncing.betty.33 - 2012-10-15 15:46

      If you can compete in this market, by say 5% then yes you are on to something, being further away from the equator will require a slight increase in cost. Our country is hopeless with investing that size of money, you are going to need billions, rather as sad as it seems you might consider selling your new cheaper and more efficient rocket + engine to the likes of other companies around the world, if you can offer a cheaper better product, they will be intersted for sure.

      marcom.aeronauticsspace - 2012-10-15 15:59

      Smaller payloads are generally launch into low Earth, high inclination Polar and Sun-synchronous orbits. Being at the Equator for this type of launch actually reduces one's capability. We're pretty well positioned here in South Africa.

      marcom.aeronauticsspace - 2012-10-15 16:27

      Yes, it would be excellent to partner with established space companies, especially in cooperative scientific missions or for extremely expensive undertakings such as a mission to MARS. Nevertheless, one first has to prove one's technology and get something up there. No one will take you seriously otherwise, even if you have test fired an engine on the ground. Contrary to popular belief, it is not governments responsibility to effect this, private industry has a major part to play as well and must invest both time and capital. As the world moves forward, so must we, otherwise we will be left behind.

      justin.sly.77 - 2012-10-15 17:31

      That is really good news. I sincerely hope you succeed and are not scuttled by bureaucratic bungling, general read tape and a lack of funding/interest by our government. Good luck!

      marcusvandermerwe - 2012-10-15 20:25

      This is really exciting news and I look forward to hearing more of your company in the future. Telecommunications and traveling is becoming more and more dependant on space technology and so yes we have to position ourselves for the future. Imagine if our government 100 years ago said that electricity was not a viable technology while everybody was using candles and steam technology. It takes vision. If we are to become first-world, we have to stay on par with the best. I'm sure we can, SA ingenuity has it's roots all over.

      Jellyarse - 2012-10-15 22:27

      I think the Government should put this sort of thing out to tender. Mark, speak to the right people and we can make sure that with Santaco as your BEE partner, you can get the deal.

      aniken.vader.31 - 2012-10-16 03:46

      marcom - thank you for the great work you guys are doing! It is FANTASTIC and I have always said - the future for this country (AND this continent) is to export the mind rather than natural resources. Mining and farming is a dead-end solution as far as future form of income is concerned. I agree that the government's duty is NOT to be responsible for funding such projects! However I cannot help but weep at the amounts of money that are mis-spent while a more responsible government would take the opportunity and shine among the rest of the world and create a situation where novel industries take more of their priority - renewable energy, space industries (and that means also satelite, components), robotics, and nano-tech! The gov. should be INVESTING in it's own people instead of living it all on the shoulders of the private industry - it should be a partnership! Anyway - good luck and I am one of your most excited admirers for the work you are doing!

      fanie.gerber1972 - 2012-11-01 20:04

      How does your systems compare to the RSA series that was cancelled in the early 90's?

  • flysouth - 2012-10-15 16:15

    Good luck to you Mark - we spoke many years ago when you were just setting out on this road - pleased to see that you are persevering and getting somwehere!

  • gordon.macleod.524 - 2012-10-15 20:20

    Hi Mark, I was working at the DST when my boss signed the submission to study possible lift facilities or at least the fuel. I wish you all the best in this endeavor. I agree it is really the job of industry to drive this development. Big science projects like this and the SKA are driven by Prestige, HCD, Economic activity, and Tech development (we called PHET theory of science economics). Government invests when these can be maximized to help the country. Space-based industries must be developed around your good work. sA is well placed to provide lift services for various payloads especially for African countries who are interested. Good luck!

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