South Africa has launched three cube satellites to help unlock the country’s “blue economy.”
The Maritime Domain Awareness Satellite constellation (MDASat), launched by SpaceX from Cape Canaveral, Fla., on 13 January, is part of a planned series of nine cube satellites that will detect, identify, and monitor ocean vessels in near-real time.
South Africa’s initiative to unlock the potential of its blue economy, dubbed Operation Phakisa, was launched in October 2014. The initiative seeks to maximize the economic potential of South Africa’s ocean zones and 2,800 kilometers of coastline. The federal Department of Science and Innovation said the blue economy could generate up to 177 billion rand ($11.7 billion) by 2033 and create between 800,000 and 1 million jobs.
As part of the initiative, “the MDASat-1 and follow-on missions will address the challenge of ocean governance as identified by Operation Phakisa, and the primary objective is to provide South Africa with a sovereign capability to monitor maritime communications within its exclusive economic zone,” said Nyameko Royi, acting chief engineer on the MDASat constellation project.
MDASat is Cape Peninsula University of Technology’s (CPUT) third satellite mission, following ZACube-1 (TshepisoSat) and ZACube-2. The Department of Science and Innovation invested 27 million rand ($1.8 million) over 3 years in the development of the constellation.
“The satellites of MDASat-1 carry an improved automatic identification system (AIS), as well as additional functionalities and improvements on the ZACube series,” said Royi, who is also senior engineer at CPUT’s Africa Space Innovation Centre.
Royi and his team are using the satellites primarily to detect, identify, and monitor foreign vessels within South Africa’s 1.5-million-square-kilometer exclusive economic zone, as well as to identify and respond to bilge and oil spills.
In addition to monitoring South Africa’s coastal waters for human activity, the satellites will observe ocean conditions, said Hendrik Burger, chief engineer at the South African National Space Agency (SANSA). Awareness of algal blooms, for instance, will help the abalone and crayfish industries to protect their stocks.
One of the biggest challenges for the African space industry is that most African countries are buying satellites from Europe or China without gaining any experience or know-how in the process and without building local industry, said Anita Nel, chief director of innovation and commercialization at Stellenbosch University in South Africa.
South Africa is different, Nel said. “In South Africa, we have a thriving space industry, supplying our satellite components and services globally,” she explained. In fact, Nel said, 99% of revenue generated by the space industry comes from exports, with 200 million rand ($13 million) estimated for 2022.
“South African space products are incorporated into a multitude of international satellites and have even been on the other side of the Moon” (with China’s Queqiao lunar satellite), said Justin Witten, an engineering manager with SANSA.
“The fact that we build our own satellites, which incorporate South African technology, is a great demonstration of South African entrepreneurship and ingenuity,” Nel said. “It is imperative that we become more active in supporting other African countries to follow the same approach.”
South Africa’s science and innovation minister, Blade Nzimande, agreed. The new satellites “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,” he said at the launch.
Around the world, Nel said, the space industry always was and always will be on the cutting edge of technology. “It pushes the boundaries of technology, it inspires greatness, and it drives innovation. The fact that we have a thriving local space industry means that more and more South Africans are getting exposure to this incredible technology,” she said, noting that the industry employs hundreds of people as technicians, engineers, managers, and administrators.
“The nanosatellite revolution that is ongoing means that space technology is now not only reserved for highly specialized engineers,” she continued. “It is creating a…young, innovative, high-tech workforce that is internationally recognized and sought after.”
—Munyaradzi Makoni (@MunyaWaMakoni), Science Writer