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ORBIT South Africa’s space technology is winning increasing international praise. SunSpace CEO Bart Cilliers tells Colin Chinery what is happening out on this exciting New Frontier.


Sunspace FEATURE


t’s South Africa’s New Frontier, the near-Earth region of space where the nation is gaining increasing international reputation as a technology leader. South Africa is looking skywards, and the anticipated economic returns for the country are tangible, exciting and potentially vast. Orbiting some 550km above the earth is micro satellite SumbandilaSat, launched in Kazakhstan last year, commissioned by the Department of Science and Technology and implemented by SunSpace, commercial spin-off of the satellite development research programme at the University of Stellenbosch. And Sumbandila - a Venda word for team leader – “paves the way for bigger and better things,” says Naledi Pandor, Minister of Science and Technology. From its high resolution cameras, images are being streamed to the Satellite Applications Centre at Hartbeeshoek outside Pretoria. The practical applications range from the management of natural disasters, to agriculture, mapping of infrastructure and land use, and the measurement of sea levels. The demand for satellite images is growing and with it international recognition of South Africa’s increasing capability in building small, cheaper-to-launch - and so increasingly popular - microsatellites. “Very few countries actually have expertise in small satellite technology right now, and South Africa is one of these,” says Lerothodi Leeuw, South African

astrophysicist at NASA’s Ames Research Centre, California. “They really have a niche at this point.” And with the imminent launch of the South African National Space Agency, the programme is moving into higher orbit. Its mandate - to promote peaceful use of space, accelerate industrial development of space technology, and foster research and international cooperation in space science and engineering. SunSpace, provider of high-performance small and medium-sized satellites – a second of which is in orbit - and related systems and solutions to the local and international aerospace market, will be a key player. As well as designing, developing and manufacturing SumbandilaSat, the company has undertaken a number of space programmes, some with the developing world. “We want to be a leader in our field of small, high performance Earth satellites. That’s what we are about,” says SunSpace CEO Bart Cilliers. “One of our objectives is to make space ventures more accessible. The European Space Agency (ESA) and American space programmes tend to be extremely costly and take a very long time periods before the assets are in space. “But by substantially lowering the cost while providing comparable performance – similar to the shift from mainframe computers to laptops - we believe this will enable a lot of other applications to be developed. We see quite a big market here and feel we are a leader in this field.”

The benefit for South Africa is in telling the investment world that we can really do the highest form of technology successfully


Sunspace FEATURE

SunSpace’s current programme includes the multi-satellite African Resource Management Constellation Agreement between Kenya, Nigeria, Algeria and South Africa, each country being responsible for its own satellite and using the space resources for regional development. The South African satellite is expected to be contracted by the end of this year. Another agreement, this time between India, Brazil and South Africa – IBSA – and scheduled for launching next year, is regarded as a satellite cooperation flagship project.

“In particular the Brazilians are very interested in the South Atlantic magnetic anomaly which causes a lot of problems for Earth observation,” says Bart Cilliers. South Africa will build the satellite bus, with the Hermanus Magnetic Observatory contributing an instrument. “We also have international clients interested in particular satellites, essentially Earth observation, but I’m not at liberty to give details.” SunSpace has its origins in the SunSat satellite programme of the Stellenbosch University. It was South Africa’s first satellite developed completely by a local South African team of engineers, and the same team today forms the core of SunSpace.

We want to be a leader in our field of small, high performance Earth satellites. That’s what we are about


South Africa’s space agenda goes back to the military space programme of the 1980s, terminated in 1994. “Under the Apartheid Government South Africa was forced to undertake many things or go without,” says Cilliers. “As a result a micro infrastructure was established in the industry in all kinds of high technology spheres. Without that base Sunspace would not have been able to do what we do.” The company itself resulted from a 1988 initiative to establish a post-graduate research group in satellite systems. Eight years later the satellite SunSat was launched by the American space agency, NASA. Success brought approaches from foreign clients, and in this developing situation it was decided to establish in the year 2000 a commercial enterprise - SunSpace. “What is unique about space,” says Cilliers, 65, “is that it attracts media attention and is generally regarded as the

pinnacle of technological development. “So South Africa successfully designing, building and launching a satellite and operating it in space makes a huge statement. Not only about the competences in SunSpace but also the supporting infrastructure which has to be there to make it possible. “Many other technological things do not really inspire young people, but space seems to have this mystery attached to it. So we are confident this will act as an inspiration for many young South Africans to follow technical engineering careers as opposed to accounting, the legal profession or what have you.” The technical and engineering expertise to innovate and build a competitive industry and boost the economy, is essential to the future of South Africa, says Cilliers. “And you can’t do this with lawyers and doctors and financial people. You obviously need their services, but the guys who


Sunspace FEATURE

actually get the job done are the engineers and scientists.” He cites the US experience. “At the end of the day how many of their population was employed on the Moon programme? But thousands upon thousands went into technical careers, and the American economy just took off. “We feel it’s very essential to have that, and make a very bold statement so that young people realise that this is what can happen. “We have some Black engineers working for us. One is a Black girl, Jessie Ndaba, who came out of Soweto from poor parents, made it into engineering, and today is doing substantial satellite work. Jessie is a role model for others in under-privileged situations, showing them it can really be done.” But in South Africa as elsewhere, space research and development has its vociferous critics. “What on earth is the benefit to the poor and the downtrodden of deep 6

space research?” asks physicist Harold Annegarn, a professor at the University of Johannesburg. Bart Cilliers is emphatic. “You have to have a balance. Yes you must attend to urgent social requirements, but unless you invest in the permanent solution of the problem - which is growing your economy and competence and competiveness internationally you are never going to solve the problem. “The dilemma for any developing country is that you have to draw a hard line somewhere and say, ‘I’m going to invest in my future, and while I’m not neglecting the urgent social needs, I must do this thing as well otherwise I’m never going to get out of the mess I’m in.’” Last month SunSpace shadow minister of science and technology Marian Shinn attacked a deal which should see the Government taking a 60 percent share in the company, arguing that investment should come from the private sector.

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“Marion Shinn made a very big mistake in assuming that this was a lot of money for a space programme,” says Cilliers. “In fact it is tiny. And you can’t find any space company anywhere in the world - including the US - that can make it on their own. “The benefit for South Africa is in telling the investment world out there that we can really do the highest form of technology successfully. This will have a positive impact on our standing across all kinds of ratings for investment in this country. You know

in some parts of the world even South Africa is regarded as a place where you can find an elephant and lions walking down the road!” The African Continent, he says, is experiencing the onset of the birth pangs of the African Renaissance. “As a technology leader to be reckoned with, SunSpace plans to play a key role in facilitating the emergence of African Space technology and credibility. “We believe that we can help to prove that the best future for Africa lies in African technology from African soil for African prosperity.” END

As a technology leader to be reckoned with, SunSpace plans to play a key role in facilitating the emergence of African Space technology and credibility


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