South Africa to Launch its MDAsat-1 Constellation on Thursday 13 January 2022

CPUT'S ZACube-2, the precurosr to the MDAsat-1 Credit: DST @dstgovza

South Africa’s Higher Education, Science and Innovation Minister Dr. Blade Nzimande has announced the launch of three satellites on Thursday, 13 January 2022. The locally-produced nanosatellites will launch from the USA as part of South Africa’s new Maritime Domain Awareness Satellite (MDASat) constellation. The MDASat will be an operational constellation of nine cube satellites. Interested persons can stream the launch via this link.

The satellites will detect, identify and monitor vessels in near real-time, supporting the South African maritime domain awareness. The three MDASat-1 satellites are scheduled to launch from Cape Canaveral in the United States at 17h25 South African time. Furthermore, it will travel to space on SpaceX’s Falcon 9 Rocket via the Transporter 3 (Dedicated SSO Rideshare) mission.

The first three satellites (MDASat-1) launch comes three years after launching the most advanced South African nanosatellite to date, ZACube-2. The Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT) developed ZACube-2 as a technology demonstrator for the MDASat constellation. “Since its launch, ZACube-2 has provided cutting-edge, very high frequency (VHF) data exchange communication systems to the country’s maritime industry. This exchange serves as a contribution to Operation Phakisa,” Nzimande said. The minister also added that his department invested ZAR 27 million (USD 1.7 million) over three years to develop the MDASat constellation.

“The MDASat-1 launch will be a significant milestone for South Africa, marking the first launch of a satellite constellation developed entirely on the African continent. This will further cement South Africa’s position as an African leader in small satellite development. Furthermore, it will help the country capture a valuable share of a niche market in the fast-growing global satellite value chain,” said Nzimande.

The MDASat-1 mission will use Automatic Identification System (AIS) data to monitor the waters off South Africa’s coast for shipping movements. AIS is a radio system for tracking maritime traffic, primarily for collision avoidance. CPUT will download location messages that the satellites receive from ships when it passes over the ground station at CPUT.

Furthermore, the data the mission gathers will typically help the South African government effectively manage the Nation’s territorial waters. Additionally, a significant development is that South Africa will possess the home-grown know-how to acquire this vital information. This will consequently reduce the Nation’s reliance on foreign companies for this data.

Prof Robert van Zyl, head of the Africa Space Innovation Centre, noted that “MDASat-1 is a major achievement and milestone for CPUT, South Africa and the continent as a whole. It will provide strategically important vessel tracking data to the government and develop skills and advanced technology”. “I am very proud of the CPUT students and staff who work hard to grow the South African space industry for the good of its people. We express our appreciation to the Department of Science and Innovation, which has funded this wonderful programme since its inception in 2008.”

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