Elon Musk’s Spacex Transporter-3 Mission to launch South African nanosatellite constellation

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SpaceX CEO Elon Musk.
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk.
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

In a first for South Africa’s space industry, three locally produced nanosatellites are set to launch into space on Thursday.

The first Maritime Domain Awareness Satellite constellation (MDASat-1) will be launched as part of US aerospace company SpaceX’s Transporter-3 mission.

The launch is scheduled to take place from Cape Canaveral in the United States on January 13, 2022, at 5.25 pm South African time. This is the latest estimated time and is subject to change depending on weather conditions.

South Africa’s satellites will be launched aboard US aerospace company SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket as a “rideshare payload” of the company’s Transporter-3 (or ISI Launch 36P) mission and will be deployed in low Earth orbit at an altitude of 525 kilometres. Transporter-3, SpaceX’s third dedicated rideshare mission, will be carrying a total of 105 spacecraft, including CubeSats, microsats, PocketQubes and orbital transfer vehicles.

An engineering qualification model of the MDASat-1 being tested.PHOTO: CPUT

The MDASat-1 launch is a significant milestone for South Africa, marking the first launch of a satellite constellation developed entirely on the African continent.

Welcoming the initiative, the Minister of Higher Education, Science and Innovation, Blade Nzimande, said the Department of Science and Innovation’s (DSI) funding and support of South Africa’s satellite construction industry is reaping the rewards.

“This will further cement South Africa’s position as an African leader in small satellite development and help the country to capture a valuable share of a niche market in the fast-growing global satellite value chain,” said Nzimande.

The launch of the first three satellites of the MDASat constellation follows three years after the launch of the most advanced South African nanosatellite to date, ZACube 2, as a technology demonstrator for the MDASat constellation.

“Since its launch in 2018, ZACube-2 has been providing cutting-edge very high frequency (VHF) data exchange communication systems to the country’s maritime industry, as a contribution to Operation Phakisa,” said Nzimande said, adding that the DSI invested R27 million over three years in the development of the MDASat constellation. The DSI is implementing this work through the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT).

Although South Africa has been involved, on a relatively small scale, in space activities since the dawn of the space age in 1957, the national space industry requires specialised skills.

Nzimande said the lack of space professionals and engineers has prompted the DSI and its entity, the National Research Foundation (NRF), to initiate a human capital development programme at CPUT under the French South African Institute of Technology (F’SATI) cube satellite (CubeSat) programme, with the introduction of a Master’s in Electrical Engineering focusing on satellite systems.

“As part of this programme, students are taught engineering principles using CubeSats as training tools,” said Nzimande.

“CubeSats are built using the same engineering principles as any other satellite, hence highly specialised and advanced skills are acquired through this programme.”

The full MDASat constellation will be an operational constellation of nine cube satellites that will detect, identify and monitor vessels in near real-time in support of South African maritime domain awareness.

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