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Opinion article | South Africa’s space voyage charts a course for the continent

Five billion years ago, two galaxies collided, mixing clouds of astronomical gas that produced a radio-wavelength laser called mega maser. That laser traveled billions of parsecs, crossing intergalactic space as the entire history of Earth unfolded. And in April 2022, it was detected by the MeerKAT radio telescope in South Africa.

It was the furthest megamaser of its kind ever detected, and the researchers named it Nkalakatha, the isiZulu word for “great chief.” This was an international achievement by researchers from South African universities, observatories and partners in 12 other countries.

Today, South Africa is an obvious center of gravity in the African space community. It is home to some of the most sophisticated ground-based space infrastructure in the world, its space supply chain is strong, and its public sector institutions are geared towards growing the space industry and national capabilities. Ultimately, however, the heart of South Africa’s space story is not where it has been but where it is going, and the results will shape space activity across the continent.

A catalytic force in African space

The MeerKAT telescope that detected Nkalakatha has made record finds since it became operational nearly four years ago. However, the 64-spoke antenna array is a precursor to a much larger and more powerful telescope, the Square Kilometer Array (SKA)scheduled to go online in the next few years.

SKA is an international project to build the world’s largest radio telescope. The arid Karoo region of South Africa will host SKA’s high- and medium-frequency dishes, while Australia will host the low-frequency antennas. Interestingly, although the Karoo is the center of the continent, other countries in Africa will also host radio telescopes as part of SKA. It is an example of how South African space missions can invigorate space activity across the African continent, a case of what I call “partnership leadership”.

This manifests itself in other ways, such as how South African satellites have been developed between universities and industry and put into orbit by foreign launch providers. It is also true of the formation of the African Space Agency (AfSA) across the continent, headquartered in Egypt.

“South Africa was quite involved in the development of the proposals on the creation of the African Space Agency,” said Pontsho Maruping, president of the African Space Agency. South African Council for Space Affairs. “Part of the intention is to create capabilities in Africa, but also to seek joint missions. If nations launch complementary systems, then they can share the data equally between partners.”

The global space community thrives on collaboration, but for South Africa, reliance on space products and services purchased from other countries also means that the development of national capabilities may need further encouragement. For Maruping, this will require some updates to the founding legislation, the Space Affairs Act, first passed in 1993.

“That legislation was created before we had an agency and companies working in the space environment,” Maruping said. “What we want to focus on is creating enabling legislation that builds local capacity, builds local skills, supports the growth of local businesses, and creates infrastructure that supports local space businesses.”

A matter of trust in the private sector

South Africa today enjoys a strong space supply chain with domestic suppliers that can deliver the specialized parts and materials needed for space assets. This supply chain is a holdover from the apartheid era, when international sanctions on South Africa meant that most of the country’s technology (particularly in the defense industry) had to be created with domestic resources and capabilities.

With the end of Apartheid in 1994, the political calculus changed but the supply chain remained. Today, South African space companies have access, for example, to raw materials and precision manufacturing because the skills and machines needed in defense translate well to the kinds of materials needed for space activities.

“South Africa has all the major systems, communication capabilities, a large manufacturing and supply chain base, we have all the ingredients” for a strong commercial space sector, said James Barrington-Brown, chief executive of New space systems and a 30-year veteran of the satellite industry. So what stands in the way of uncontrolled growth?

“It’s a trust issue,” Barrington-Brown said. “Africans have been told for so long that they can’t do anything that they have begun to believe it. When organizations want a satellite, they go to China or Russia or France and buy one because they don’t feel confident enough to create their own. Africans will not buy from Africans because they are not sure they will get something that works or is worth their money.”

As a result, he said, South African space companies are focused on export as there is not enough domestic demand to support a sustainable industry. Since foreign space markets (particularly in the United States) account for the majority of the global space industry, there is a need to export space products and services wherever a company operates. For South Africa, however, building local capabilities will require a shift in trust, according to Barrington-Brown, who added that selling domestic products and services to local customers has the added effect of building local capabilities, which in turn drives further innovation. . , investment and commercial activity.

Fortunately, there is some progress in this direction. In January 2022, South Africa launched a constellation of nanosatellites developed exclusively on the African continent. The Maritime Domain Awareness Satellite (MDASat-1) constellation launched from Cape Canaveral on the SpaceX Transporter-3 mission. Minister for Higher Education, Science and Innovation of South Africa Blade Nzimande said“This will further cement South Africa’s position as the African leader in small satellite development and help the country capture a valuable share of a niche market in the fast-growing global satellite value chain.”

Education Needs for Workforce Development

The world is familiar with arguably the most successful South African in the space community, SpaceX founder Elon Musk, originally from Pretoria. The question for South Africa is how to identify and encourage more innovators, scientists, business leaders and all the skilled talent needed to drive a growing space economy.

A chronic challenge for South Africa is the significant inequality in access to opportunity that exists in different regions of the country. Today, only 6% of South Africans have any university degreeand among OECD countries, South Africa ranks last in the percentage of people aged 25 to 34 with tertiary education.

“Unfortunately, building capabilities is a numbers game,” Maruping said. “Not all students will study engineering. At the local level, it is very difficult. There is a demand for qualified talent and many sectors need the same skills. The biggest hurdle is simply not being able to produce a large number of quality engineers in the quantity that is required to support the economy.”

An advantage for South Africa is that almost half of the population (44%) is under the age of 25, which means there are millions of opportunities to attract more young people interested in space into science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). fields. That is why Space Foundation is proud to have two South African educators in our Teacher Liaison Program, Shaun Keyser with Keyser Training, and Steve Sherman with Living Maths. The Teach Liaison program equips teachers with space-related approaches and lesson plans that they can then share with their professional peers in their home country, thereby expanding the ability to foster student interest in space. and STEM subjects around the world.

In general, South Africa has fantastic assets in the space economy and also faces challenges in accessing demand and nurturing the domestic space industry. In many ways, this is true of all spacefaring nations. That is why it does not matter how developed the space capabilities of a country are. The collaboration of the entire global space community is needed, and South Africa is a vital player for the continent and the world’s future in space.


Shelly Brunswick He is the director of operations for the Space Foundation.