“Africa Needs Sovereign Access to Space and Somebody has to Make this Happen” Dr Jean Pitot of ASReG

Dr Jean Pitot

Africa is well-poised to launch different satellites at different orbital inclinations. However, despite this geographical advantage, Africa is reluctant to leverage it by developing indigenous orbital launch services and new launch service platforms or resuscitating the various platforms that have once launched satellites in the 20th century. To this end, the Aerospace Systems Research Group is on an ambitious project to develop an African launch service platform to service the African market. Based at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban, South Africa, the Group is developing its liquid rocket propulsion system for a satellite launch vehicle and has successfully conducted various ground tests. The Group earlier broke Africa’s hybrid rocket launch record with an altitude of 18km. The Group has recently successfully tested its first liquid-propellant rocket engine in its SAFFIRE development programme. 

Space in Africa reached out to Dr Jean Pitot of the Research Group to learn more about their plans and what they are set to achieve on the continent.

Can you give a brief exposition on the Aerospace Systems Research Group (ASReG)?

ASReG was established in 2009 to develop aerospace technology in South Africa via an academic platform. The Group started with two masters students but has grown to a current postgraduate complement of 16 students. Initially, the scope of our research was fairly broad, but over time, it has become focused on rocket propulsion technology development and launch vehicle design. ASReG runs two flagship programmes: the Phoenix programme, which develops hybrid rocket motors and low-altitude sounding rockets, primarily for human capital development purposes, and the much younger SAFFIRE programme, which seeks to develop small, modular liquid rocket engines to provide propulsion for small satellite launch vehicles.

You recently successfully tested the Ablative Blowdown Liquid Engine (ABLE). Can you explain a bit more about it and explain how it factors into your overall efforts?

ABLE is the first engine to be developed in the programme and has primarily served as a technology demonstrator, validating our design architectures, manufacturing methodologies and performance models, as well as exposing our engineering team to the numerous intricacies of liquid rocket engine operation. Designed to generate a thrust of 17 kN, the ABLE engine combusts kerosene and liquid oxygen and employs low-cost ablative material technology for engine cooling purposes.  

Members of the ABLE project’s postgraduate student team in front of the mobile rocket engine test facility and joined by Mr Humbulani Mudau (second from the left), who is Chief Director: Space Science and Technology at South Africa’s Department of Science and Innovation.

A significant element of the ABLE project was the development of a mobile, self-contained rocket engine test facility to enable safe engine testing. This facility was assembled at our campus at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban and then transported across the country to the Denel Overberg Test Range, where the ABLE test campaign took place. We were thrilled by the campaign’s success, which met all baseline technical objectives. In fact, the performance level the ABLE engine achieved qualifies it as one of the most powerful liquid rocket engines ever developed by a university internationally. 

So, in a nutshell, the ABLE project has laid the technical foundation for the next phase of the SAFFIRE programme, which will see the development of a much leaner, higher-performing engine in flight-weight configuration.

Is your programme limited to developing engines, or do you intend to expand to developing a launch vehicle down the line?

That’s an excellent question. Generally, you can’t design a launch vehicle without engine designs, so we have started from there with the SAFFIRE programme. But running in parallel with the programme has been the development of ASReG’s commercial launch vehicle concept. It is a launch vehicle designed to carry about 200 kg of payload to a 500 km sun-synchronous orbit, which is really the sweet spot of the small satellite market at present. So the vehicle is currently configured to service that market.

The concept is coupled to and evolving in step with our engine development work, and its design is entirely guided by cost-performance. We are now also developing the technology basis for a number of associated subsystems, including the vehicle’s propellant tanks, through our work with a variety of industry partners. 

The SAFFIRE programme is primarily concerned with the core technical challenge of developing a viable satellite launch vehicle in the NewSpace era: being able to build reliable rocket engines quickly and cheaply. Concurrently, though, we’re putting together the building blocks for a globally competitive launch vehicle powered by SAFFIRE engines that can offer Africa sovereign space access.

What commercial strategies are you seeking to leverage for the programme?

One of ASReG’s driving objectives has always been to transfer aerospace technologies developed in a research environment to a commercial environment. Being successful at doing this is difficult, especially given that the NewSpace arena, by its nature, is so dynamic. So we’re keeping a careful eye on market developments as we plan a commercialisation approach that’s best-suited to us. It’s therefore still too early to talk openly about the strategy we’re presently focused on, but as a general indication of where we are in the overall process, we are already engaging with potential Africa-based investors.

At ASReG, we have been and continue to receive phenomenal funding support from South Africa’s Department of Science and Innovation (DSI), so we’ve had the luxury of continuing our work without being prematurely exposed to the cut-throat small satellite launch service start-up environment. The industry is in a turbulent phase at the moment, as the current technology architectures and business models that many launch vehicle start-ups are employing are rapidly becoming obsolete, and as the impact that SpaceX will have on the small satellite launch market via their Falcon 9 rideshare Starship programmes becomes clearer. 

As such, we pay a lot of attention to forecasting industry evolution as best we can and course-correcting our development strategy accordingly. For example, it’s become quite apparent, in my opinion, that launch service providers that aren’t flying at least partially reusable launch vehicles in five to ten years’ time will need to be subsidised in order to be financially viable. In addition, I believe that disruptive approaches to maximising operational efficiency at every stage of the launch service lifecycle will be required to ensure sustained competitiveness. Furthermore, a pressing matter that doesn’t seem to be addressed by the operational strategies of most prospective launch service providers is the need to radically minimise the environmental impact of space launch services as a whole. This issue will only become more important with time.

Does this holistic approach also include you becoming a launch service provider?

Ultimately, yes, that is the objective of our work. We feel that there are distinct competitive advantages to establishing a launch capability in and operating a launch service from South Africa, and we plan to exploit these to the fullest. From a technical perspective, we have complete faith in the technology suite that we’re currently working on, which we believe will allow us to arrive at a revenue-generating launch vehicle in the shortest possible time. We’re certainly not blind to the profound difficulty of achieving this, and from the outset, we’ve sought to be realistic about the challenges we face and to keep our expectations in check. The bottom line, however, is that Africa needs sovereign access to space, and at some point, somebody has to make this happen!  

The ABLE engine operating during one of its hot-fire tests

You are looking to take advantage of South Africa’s position in relation to launching polar orbits. Do you also see yourself taking advantage of other beneficial locations on the continent or are you going to launch only from South Africa?

That’s an important question to raise. Fundamentally, if a launch service doesn’t have access to a wide variety of orbital inclinations, it will be significantly hamstrung from the start. In terms of polar and sun-synchronous orbits, South Africa is very well placed to service these from the Denel Overberg Test Range at the southern tip of Africa, since it has direct access to those launch inclinations which is minimally inhibited by air and maritime traffic. However, it’s clear to us that there is a healthy market for equatorial orbits, for example, especially in the context of future lunar and interplanetary missions. Importantly, Africa is very well poised to facilitate launches to lower inclination orbits, as most of its eastern seaboard has uninhibited access to the Indian Ocean, with comparatively low levels of air and maritime traffic to contend with. Of significance in this regard, you may recall that a number of equatorial missions were launched from the Broglio Space Center on the Kenyan coast aboard US-made Scout launch vehicles in the 1960s-80s.

You are being funded by the DSI. Could you give a ballpark estimate of the cost of your entire project?

Unfortunately, we’re not at liberty to disclose the funding that we have received from the Department of Science and Innovation, as the associated funding agreements are confidential. But with respect to the overall objective of establishing a South African small satellite launch capability, based on our conceptual launch vehicle, we estimate that ZAR 2 billion to 4 billion (USD 125 million to USD 250 million) would be required via private and/or government investment to begin commercial operations. This figure was derived from a financial modelling exercise that we undertook as part of a national launch capability feasibility study. We’re confident that this estimate is in fact conservative since it’s based on traditional cost data and since the technologies employed by the vehicle will be inherently low-risk. 

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