The United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), through UNOOSA director Dr Simonetta di Poppo, recently announced the winners for the Sixth round of the KiboCUBE initiative. For the third time, an African nation emerged as an awardee of the programme. The Tunisian Ecole Supérieure Privée d’Ingénierie et de Technologie Appliquée [Private Higher School of Engineering and Applied Technology] (IHE_ESPITA) emerged as one of the Sixth Round’s two awardees. The award will see the Tunisian school launch the educational CubeSat TUNSAT-1 as the KiboCube programme.
Space in Africa met up with the Tunisian Project Coordinator and Director-General of the School, Dr Hana Aouinet, and the Deputy Project Coordinator, Ahmed El Fadhel, to talk about the award and what it meant for the school, Tunisia, and Africa.
Dr Hana began by expressing her gratitude and noted that the achievement was a, first not only in Tunisia but also in the Arab world. She also noted that the team comprised 21 experts from within and outside Tunisia, including Ahmed, the team manager.
Can you explain the journey from where the program started to winning the opportunity to launch your satellite?
It started by analysing the current realities of the Tunisian environment. There was no opportunity for a Tunisian student to work on an object that would be sent to space. There were prototypes and theoretical projects, but they had not sent anything to space. This motivated our intention to work on a cubesat that would be sent to space. The project’s other goal was to reduce inequality in access to space in Africa, aligning with SDGs.
Consequently, we discovered the KiboCube program, which was an excellent fit for our project requirements, and we applied for it through IHE_ESPITA in partnership with the Tunisian Space Association (TUNSA). We knew that our chances to win the competition were not very high as it was our first application, and we also had to contend with the Covid Pandemic. Nevertheless, we set up a team and started working towards it. After applying, we realized that we’ve made significant progress with the satellite design and decided that we had to continue working regardless of the KiboCube competition results. Needless to say, UNOOSA notified us that they had shortlisted our project. This proved to us that we had the fundamental knowledge regarding the project. Per UNOOSA’s request, we provided them with more information regarding the project.
While we had some of the necessary testing facilities, we reached out to the Egyptian Space Agency for partnership, allowing us to use some of their facilities. EgSA responded to our request for collaboration with clear and unwavering support for the project and Tunisia’s application. Egypt played their role as a regional and continental leader in the industry. We subsequently sent our update to JAXA and UNOOSA, and they requested more details. This was as we were already at the finals, unbeknownst to us. UNOOSA and JAXA eventually decided on the winners, a Mexican university and us.
This meant a lot to us because it meant that we were placed on equal standing, in terms of technical proficiency, with a university from a more space-advanced country like Mexico. So, for us, it proved that we were in the right direction. Nevertheless, there’s still a lot of work to be done, we are yet to build the satellite, but we believe we can get the project done.
What is the project’s current status, and what is the timeline?
Firstly, we are open to collaborations with the Arab world and the world at large. Also, we have just received notice for the first kick-off meeting. At the moment, we are fine-tuning the preliminary design review. We will work next on the satellite’s critical design and purchase some components to enable functional testing and begin developing the satellite subsystems. We will have two safety reviews with JAXA while assembling and testing the satellite. The reviews will primarily be to check our progress, and it will be in September or October 2022, while the second will be in early 2023.
Because our satellite will stop at the international space station, unlike most satellites launched directly to space, our project has another level of complexity it must surpass. For example, we must satisfy safety requirements relating to the ISS to ensure the satellite does not endanger the ISS. Despite this, we are sure we can surpass this challenge, especially with all the support we have. In terms of the launch date, we don’t have an exact one yet, but we believe it will be at the end of 2023. The mission timeline is relatively short as we need to have already shipped the tested satellite to Japan in 15 months.
What will be your satellite’s primary mission in space, and what are the satellite’s specifications?
TunSat-1 will be a technology demonstration satellite, and we will use the information we derive from it to prepare for other space missions. The satellite will consequently provide research and educational benefits. The satellite will be an Earth Observation (EO) satellite primarily for capacity development in Tunisia. We intend to determine its functionality and whether our homemade components will work in space. We don’t want a one-shot mission, so we have a long-term plan with a series of space missions. The idea is that our space capabilities will progressively improve over the planned space missions. Our planned programs and missions will consequently be based on the experience and knowledge gathered from this mission. Our ultimate goal is to have a sustainable space program in Tunisia. This mission is vital for us as the first mission is typically the most important and most challenging.
How did the Challenge-1 satellite affect the development of TunSat-1?
There was very little influence from the Challenge-1 programme because we had already started working on the TunSat-1 project before the private company Telnet announced the launch date of Challenge-1. We started the application process in December 2020, while the Challenge-1 satellite launched in March 2021. Furthermore, the concepts are different as Challenge-1 is a commercial satellite from Telnet while we’re working on an educational and not-for-profit technology demonstration project. However, we aim to influence one another and work or compete with institutions like Telnet in the future.
Like the South African model, we are also trying to develop a model that involves several industrial actors, a healthy local sector, in partnership with international partners like Japan, Germany, The US, France, China and Russia. These countries can work with us in terms of commercial or not-for-profit satellite programmes and help the local industry work together, and also compete to improve the local space race in the development of Tunisia’s economic growth.
We are also working to have large industrial companies open subsidiaries in Tunisia. This will provide employment opportunities for students from IHE_ESPITA and other universities. This relationship will be mutually beneficial as the subsidiaries will also seek to hire essential staff from the Tunisian populace. This will help enhance the ecosystem we are trying to develop. IHE_ESPITA has the advantage in terms of the academic space sector aspect as they have pioneered the Tunisian and Arab movement into academic satellite development.
What are TunSat-1’s specifications?
TunSat-1 will be a 1U satellite, and it will have a small camera that will be used for this mission. The satellite will subsequently be upgraded during the following missions. For us, we intend to qualify the satellite bus in space through TunSat-1. Regarding the cost, at this level of the project, there are a lot of uncertainties as to cost. As a result, we cannot provide a precise budget now due to the large margins of errors. Nevertheless, with what we can say, for now, it’s in the order of a few hundreds of thousands of dollars. However, as we progress toward the end of the program, we will provide more accurate information regarding the budget. We also are yet to determine the satellite’s operational cost. Nevertheless, we are already looking to estimate it and subsequently reduce it.
Are there plans to commercialise the program down the line?
We are certain that the TunSat-1 will be not-for-profit as it’s a requirement for the KiboCUBE program. The project will be for capacity development. Nevertheless, as we can’t completely rely on the government, we want to involve the private sector in the future. It will also help us develop a buoyant private space sector in the Country. Furthermore, we believe that developing the local space programme to desirable levels requires contributions from various sectors. These include the academic and the private sectors. The government will also need to provide an enabling environment to facilitate the space sector’s development.
How are you going about funding TunSat-1
IHE_ESPITA fully funds it, and this actually reduces the complexity of getting funds at these early stages.