The South African Space Agency (SANSA) has identified opportunities to have its “footprint” on lunar and Mars missions through international collaboration, says the agency head, Dr Valanathan Munsami.
Responding to a question on how emerging space-faring nations can key into human spaceflight programmes during the Heads of Emerging Space Agencies Plenary at the recently-concluded International Astronautical Congress in Washington D.C, Dr Munsami said that now is a good time for emerging space-faring nations to be part of the movement for human flight to space or risk being left out which has consequences for the future generation.
“We have to look at [space exploration] from a point of view of 50-100 years down the line. What picture do you want? Do you want us to stand on the side and watch? Do you want us to be part of an integral part of space exploration? Unless we get into this train right now, it is going to be challenging for our future generation,” he added.
South Africa has a capacity in ground-based tracking of deep space objects, owing to its geographical advantage in the southern hemisphere and expertise in space science and operations. Dr Munsami identifies this strength as an opportunity to layer South Africa’s footprint in burgeoning lunar and Mars missions.
In an earlier interview with Space in Africa on the possibility of landing an African on the moon, Dr Munsami said, “SANSA is in discussion with the major Space Agencies on hosting a Deep Space Network for the planned Moon and Mars missions, and we have already identified an ideal site in South Africa from which to do this.”
Contributing to lunar missions is not strange to the South African space industry. South Africa hosted the Deep Space Station 51 (DSS-51), a NASA facility installed near Hartebeesthoek in 1961 which first supported NASA’s Ranger 1 precursor mission, tracked Surveyor and Lunar Orbiter spacecraft (which landed on the Moon or mapped it from orbit), the Mariner missions (which explored the planets Venus and Mars) and the Pioneer missions (which measured the Sun’s winds), and the Apollo missions as a part of the three original deep space network; the other two are located in Goldstone, California and Canberra, Australia.
Some sources say that the first image from Mars came via NASA instruments in South Africa. However, in 1974 NASA pulled out of operating the facilities in South Africa citing “changing flight requirements and unfavourable political environment.”
Following NASA departure in 1974, South Africa’s Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) transformed the facility into the Hartebeesthoek Radio Astronomy Observatory before it became a national facility in 1988 operated by the Foundation for Research Development (now known as the National Research Foundation).
More recently, South Africa supported its second Mars mission when the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) contracted SANSA to provide tracking, telemetry and command services for the first Asian mission to Mars – the Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM).
SANSA’s Hartebeesthoek ground station chosen for the project was“ideally located to be the closest point to the satellite per pass,” says Pandey Shyam, an ISRO scientist stationed at SANSA for the duration of the testing.
South Africa’s capability in space science and operations has grown over the years to become one of the most revered globally in terms of facilities, research and human expertise. In the 2017/18 financial year, SANSA generated approximately USD 5.6 million (R85,965,065) commercial income from its space operations activities and provided a total of 47 supportive spacecraft interactions for international space missions. The Agency boasts of a successful satellite pass monitoring rate of 98% (~4500 passes).
“Now we have a fully sustainable business, with lots of space operations, and as the international initiatives increase, that also brings an increase in terms of business opportunities for us. For example, we are now looking at a new Deep Space Network which we’re talking to the international partners about for the Lunar and Mars mission.” Dr Munsami told SpaceWatch Africa in a separate interview, in August.
SANSA is currently in discussion with NASA to collaborate on a Deep Space Network, which will support future U.S. lunar and Mars missions such as the Artemis crewed spaceflight to the Moon.
“We are in discussion with the U.S. For example, we have identified a site for the Deep Space Network in South Africa, which will essentially – if it comes through – support the lunar and Mars missions in the future,” Dr Munsami told Politico, during an interview on the sidelines of the IAC2019.
SANSA engineers are reportedly building high-performance computers and testing fast data processing applications in a bid to optimise their capacity to deliver on deep monitoring services and demands from large satellite constellations.
On the flip side, NASA and the U.S. government have stated on significant occasions, their resolve to welcome international and commercial partners for future lunar and Mars missions. NASA Administrator, Jim Bridenstine, during a press briefing at the IAC2019, said that at least 26 nations had approached him on the sidelines of the congress, to discuss the Artemis lunar program and possibilities for collaboration.
Joseph Ibeh is a Mandela Washington Fellow and Senior Analyst at Space in Africa. His experience spans industry research and market analysis with a focus on African-grown NewSpace companies, commercial space industry, national space programmes and real-life application of space science for sustainable development in Africa.