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China's Yutu 2 rover moving across the far side of the moon. Source: China National Space Administation
  • The Chinese lunar satellite, Queqiao, contains a piece of SA tech that will probe the earliest ages of the universe. The satellite is part of the Chang’e-4 mission to the far side of the moon.
  • A tiny camera, developed by Space Advisory Company in Somerset West, is part of the Netherlands-China Low-frequency Explorer, which aims to look at the cosmos from astronomy’s most coveted real estate.
  • SAC is responsible for four satellites and provided components for the payloads of six others currently in space.

In an untouched box aboard China’s Queqiao satellite, which is currently circling the moon like a halo, a piece of South African hardware is waiting to be switched on. 

Queqiao is a relay satellite, communicating between the Chang’e-4 lunar lander and rover and Earth. Chang’e-4, which landed earlier this month, is the first mission to the surface of the far side of the Moon, whose pitted landscape may be able to reveal the history of the Earth and point to when life sparked on our blue-green planet.

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An illustration of China's Queqiao relay satellite near the moon. Source: China National Space Agency

But the Queqiao communications satellite also has a passenger: the Netherlands-China Low-frequency Explorer (NCLE), which will investigate what the early universe looked like.  “The Earth is a dirty place to do low-frequency astronomy,” says Heino Falcke, principal investigator of the NCLE. “On the far side of the Moon, you’re facing away from Earth and the whole Moon is blocking it,” he says. An antenna on the far side of the Moon will allow astronomers to do science that is not possible here at home.

To do that, it needed a data processing and storage device, which is what Space Advisory Company provided. The company usually specialises in cameras to take images of Earth from space, says SAC product manager Francois Malan. “We were working on an optical payload for export clients, and for this mission, we took away the image sensor and reprogrammed the hardware to process radio astronomy data, instead of image data.” And the company’s imager had already been certified space-ready. 

The Somerset West-based company, which is part of larger local SCS Aerospace Group, has about 60 employees, and “four complete satellites that we built, and six satellite payloads that are currently operational in space”, Malan says. “Another two delivered payloads are currently sitting on the proverbial launch pad, with several other ones under development.”

But astronomers and engineers will have to wait and see if the NCLE experiment will even work.

In exchange for its free ride on Queqiao, the NCLE can only start operations once the Chinese Chang’e-4 mission has completed its main objectives later this year.

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