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Tech News: SpaceX launch - SA’s stellar trajectory as the continent’s leader in nanosatellite development

Thursday the 13th of January, 17:25:44 South African time, will be remembered as a landmark moment in the history of South African space technology. Elon Musk’s company, SpaceX, successfully launched its Falcon 9 rocket Transporter-3 into space from the Cape Canaveral launch site in Florida, United States of America. Photo: File

Thursday the 13th of January, 17:25:44 South African time, will be remembered as a landmark moment in the history of South African space technology. Elon Musk’s company, SpaceX, successfully launched its Falcon 9 rocket Transporter-3 into space from the Cape Canaveral launch site in Florida, United States of America. Photo: File

Published Jan 24, 2022

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Thursday the 13th of January, 17:25:44 South African time, will be remembered as a landmark moment in the history of South African space technology. Elon Musk’s company, SpaceX, successfully launched its Falcon 9 rocket Transporter-3 into space from the Cape Canaveral launch site in Florida, United States of America.

What makes this moment remarkable is not that it was the rocket of a South African born person, but that it carried three nanosatellites from the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT) among the one hundred and five spacecraft on board the SmallSat rideshare mission of SpaceX.

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The launch of the three cube satellites, named MDASat-1 a to c, is the culmination of a dedicated strategy of developing space engineering at CPUT since 2008. This strategy eventually led to the successful development, the 2013 launch and operation of CPUT’s first nanosatellite, ZACUBE-1 (more popularly known as TshepisoSat). ZACUBE-1 was the very first cube satellite out of Africa and is now approaching 450 kilometres above the earth. It is expected to burn out in space within the next five to ten years. Since the first cube satellite, several subsystems have been developed and refined, and yielded a suite of commercial CubeSat parts.

ZACUBE-2, CPUT’s second more advanced satellite, was launched as a precursor to the Operation Phakisa MDASat constellation, a project mandated and funded by the Department of Science and Technology (DST) since 2018 at a cost of R27-million. Since its launch, ZACUBE-2 has been providing cutting-edge very high frequency (VHF) data exchange communication to the country's maritime industry.

One of the focus areas of Operation Phakisa, a fast-tracked implementation of the South African National Development Plan, is the ocean economy. With the expansion of South African waters, a special need has emerged for effective Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA). Under Operation Phakisa’s Marine Protection Services and Governance (MPSG) focus area, a need was identified to support the protection of the South African ocean environment from illegal activities and to reduce the illegal activities in the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). South Africa’s EEZ stretches 200 nautical miles from the coast of South Africa and the Prince Edward Islands and covers a total of 1 535 538 square kilometres.

The Marine Protection Services and Governance Lab therefore developed ten key initiatives, one of which is the national Ocean and Coastal Information Management System (OCIMS) and the extension of earth observation capacity to protect South Africa’s marine resources from exploitation.

To assist and strengthen the accurate monitoring of the South African maritime domain, and to allow for enhanced security and protection of marine resources, engineers developed a Software Defined Radio (SDR) to do the monitoring. ZACUBE-2 has been used to test this innovative Software Defined Radio payload. The goal of the ZACUBE-2 mission, launched in 2019, has been to serve as a stepping stone and demonstrate the technology that will be used in a proposed constellation of maritime domain awareness nano-satellites.

One of the goals of this constellation of nine cube satellites is to detect, identify and monitor vessels in near real-time to keep track of their whereabouts and to supply the data to the national Ocean and Coastal Information Management System. By doing so they will assist in the protection of the South African marine environment. The Software Defined Radio is highly flexible and can address a wide range of communication needs in parallel with its primary Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) objectives. Additionally, ZACUBE-2 carries a medium resolution K-line imager payload to detect fires or even if the ships are being taken over by pirates.

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The three MDASat satellites are building on the innovative work of ZACUBE-2 by focusing on maritime domain awareness, expanding the on-orbit data gathering capability and data delivery of the payload, and adding additional payload features. The primary objective of the MDASat is to provide South Africa with a sovereign capability to monitor maritime communications within its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), ranging from the current Automatic Identification System (AIS) standard to the future VHF Data Exchange Service (VDES) standard. This will be done by augmenting data delivery to the national Ocean and Coastal Information Management System’s Integrated Vessel Tracking (IVT) Decision Support Tool (DeST). AIS is a radio system for tracking maritime traffic, primarily for collision avoidance, but is especially valuable in the instance of vessels illegally entering into South Africa’s Exclusive Economic Zone.

The first three satellites of the MDASat constellation were deployed at a low earth orbit of 425 kilometres altitude and have Automatic Identification System (AIS) receivers. The satellites therefore have some interesting functionalities, such as:

  • Over-the-air upgrades that allows operators to develop new features and services, embed it into the software, and then upload the software to the orbiting satellite when ready.
  • In addition to the detection and saving of valid Automatic Identification System messages, the payload can capture raw data in the maritime spectrum. This opens the possibility to perform diagnostic testing to assess signal interference conditions in the band and their effect on the decoding of messages.
  • The satellites have two specified Long Range Automatic Identification System channels to be used as uplinks for receiving AIS messages by satellite.
  • The payload of the satellites has an efficient messaging scheme with an advanced data interface to optimise the use of the available downlink data transmitter’s bandwidth.

Although the constellation will have worldwide coverage, the initial ground segment will be based in South Africa, to enable the rapid download of maritime data collected over South African waters. Over time, the constellation’s services could be extended into other SADC countries or internationally as needed.

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One week after the launch I had the privilege to follow-up on the successful launch and deployment of the satellites with Nyameko Royi, the African Space Innovation Centre (ASIC) Senior Engineer at the French South African Institute of Technology (F’SATI) of the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT). He spoke passionately about the importance of this innovative project.

According to Royi, not only was the launching of the first constellation satellites from Africa hugely successful, but the MDASat-1 triplets are responding well to tele-commands and the telemetry received is excellent. In terms of technology it is a major achievement for South Africa that will enhance the protection of our marine resources. South Africa has showcased her engineering capability in the specialised space domain and developed very capable space equipment, which reduces the country’s dependency on foreign companies to provide the necessary data to protect our territorial waters. CPUT will now continue to develop the remaining six satellites of the constellation.

Royi also emphasised that the MDASat mission will continue to grow expertise within the French South African Institute of Technology (F’SATI) and the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT), as well as their key technology partners, notably the Electronic Systems Laboratory (ESL) at the University of Stellenbosch and Stone Three. Together with the partners future technology innovations flowing from the project will be validated. They will also continue to work with other countries and universities.

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In the midst of all the bad news, this achievement of South Africa is a ray of light and a very proud moment since the DMASat satellites were entirely developed on the African continent, illustrating how research and science can benefit the people of South Africa.

It also established South Africa’s position as an African leader in nanosatellite development – a niche market in the fast-growing global satellite value chain with more than 1700 CubeSats in space in August 2021. Hopefully this achievement will inspire more young people in South Africa to follow a career in space science.

Professor Louis C H Fourie, Extraordinary Professor, University of the Western Cape

*The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL or of title sites.

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