SA's new R4.5bn space hub will build up to 6 new satellites - here's what you need to know

Business Insider SA
  • The South African National Space Agency (Sansa) has been awarded R4.4 billion in investor funding to develop a space infrastructure hub.
  • Through the hub, Sansa plans to contract industry to build up to six satellites to supply the country with space data.
  • The agency has also sourced about R300 million in extra cash to upgrade its space weather centre and build a concurrent design facility to speed up satellite design, among other upgrades. 
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The South African National Space Agency (Sansa) will allocate more than R3 billion to the design and development of up to six new satellites in the next four years, says its CEO Val Munsami

This is thanks to R4.4 billion in investor funding sourced through President Cyril Ramaphosa’s sustainable infrastructure development symposium.

Historically, the Tshwane-based agency has received a R150 million Parliamentary grant annually. “If we hadn’t gotten the [space] infrastructure hub funding and just had to go along with the [National] Treasury allocation, it would have taken us decades to look at strengthening the space value chain we’re considering now,” Munsami says. 

In the past, South Africa has struggled to raise the funding required to complete large space projects, such as its much delayed EO-Sat1. Many in the country’s space industry – like the ill-fated satellite manufacturer SunSpace, which was ultimately absorbed into Denel – have struggled to realise the economies of scale or government contracts necessary to survive.  

Government already using foreign-bought satellite data

Satellite-data usage is already widespread in government departments and state-owned companies, from StatsSA using it to map human settlements through to the department of agriculture, forestry and fisheries using it for land and resource management. However, this data is acquired from global satellites, not local ones which observe parameters that specifically interest South African government departments and companies. 

“Core to the space infrastructure hub is the recognition that government departments are already using space-data services,” Munsami says. 

To date, South Africa is the only sub-Saharan African country to have designed and built its own satellites. “We have the ability to conceptualise, design, develop, and build satellites to get into orbit – all other countries procure from abroad,” he says. However, it has been almost a decade since engineers lost contact with local satellite Sumbandila, although the country has since launched a few nanosatellites, called “cubesats”

Six satellites in the next four years 

“We’re looking to build half a dozen satellites in the next three to four years,” says Munsami, “as well as the ground infrastructure to support these missions.” 

Sansa would not be responsible for the entire satellite-manufacturing chain, though. “Once we do the initial scoping, then industry comes in,” he says. About R3.1 billion of the R4.5 billion is earmarked for satellite development and manufacturing, with the rest planned for supporting infrastructure.  

“The majority of that R4.5 billion will be spent in industry. We’re creating that ecosystem, bringing in industry to be contracted to develop that value chain,” Munsami says.  

When EO-Sat1 was in the pipeline, it was a 80/20 split, with 80% of the materials sourced locally, Munsami notes. That is the split they’re targeting for the new builds too. 

Infrastructure to build up space hub 

Sansa has also secured more than R300 million in addition to the billions allocated for the space infrastructure hub. This includes R150 million to upgrade its space weather centre, which is now one of a global network and will provide space weather data 24/7, and a concurrent design facility. 

The facility, with a price tag of R25 million, will allow engineers to “design a satellite in three to four weeks, instead of 12-14 months”, Munsami says. “It saves a third of the cost and allows you to get the design out of the door quicker.” 

Traditional satellite design involves engineers working separately on different aspects of the design, bringing it together, and then revising areas in which the design does not work or meet the necessary specification. “In a concurrent design facility, engineers don’t go away and design something on their own,” says Amal Khatri, executive director for Sansa’s space programme

With concurrent design, all the engineers sit together in one room and work on the design together. The main benefit is that, aside from the time saved, such a process reduces design changes by as much as 50% – and that has a major impact on costs, Khatri says.  

But while Sansa will be building the facility for satellite design, anyone working on an engineering project can use it. 

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