South Africa has a rich history of involvement in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean Islands following the earliest voyages of discovery, due to the then “Cape of Good Hope’s strategic position as a stop-over for explorers, whalers and sealers (people hunting whales and seals)”.
South Africa, alongside eleven other countries active in Antarctica during the International Geophysical Year (IGY of 1957–58), is a founding member of the Antarctic Treaty of 1959. South Africa has made substantial contributions to research and various activities pertaining to the Antarctic, including the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR), the Council of Managers of National Antarctic Program and the Antarctic Treaty System.
In 1959, the first South African National Antarctic Expedition (SANAE) was undertaken. The expedition established a permanent presence for South Africa in Antarctica which is still there to date. South Africa took over an abandoned Norwegian base on the edge of the ice shelf, some 4,000 km south of Cape Town, according to information available on South Africa’s Department of Environmental Affairs website.
The South African National Antarctic Programme (SANAP) manages the research expedition with the support and coordination of the Department of Science and Technology (DST), National Research Foundation (NRF) and the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA).
SANAP manages three research stations: the SANAE IV (South African National Antarctic Expedition) Station, located at located at Vesleskarvet, Dronning Maud Land in Antarctica, Marion Island (the larger of the two Prince Edward islands) and Gough Island.
The Antarctic Legacy of South Africa (ALSA) Project focuses on records from the research stations, as well as from South Africa’s successive Antarctic research and supply vessels, the R.S.A., S.A. Agulhas and S.A. Agulhas II, which have transported researchers and supplies between Cape Town.
ALSA recently visited the SANAE IV station in the first two weeks of January to gather authentic information on South Africa’s involvement in the Antarctic region. Following the visit, ALSA’s Anché Louw will create 360° images of the SANAE IV station and its surroundings which will be made available to South Africans to understand the nation’s programmes in Antarctica.
“A South African research expedition SANAE57 (57th SANAE Overwintering) team is currently heading home onboard the S.A. Agulhas II vessel. The team spent 14months on Antarctica from December 2017 to March 2019, carrying out scientific research at SANAE and in the Weddell Sea.”
“The SANAE57 team spends 14 months at the base which is some distance inland. The icebreaker ship which ferries supplies and crew, the SA Agulhas II, dropped off the new crew and supplies, then headed off to the Weddell Sea to hunt for Shackleton’s ship & do various other scientific research activities. Then the ship returned to the nearest “ice dock” to pick up the returning crew and waste from the base and ferry them back to SA.
So the team coming back didn’t have anything to do with the research being done in the Weddell Sea. They only do space science research at the base, while the ship does separate research of its own”.
While the SANAE57 team returns home, “scientists from the University of Cape Town (UCT), the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and the South African Weather Service (SAWS) continue to collect oceanographic and meteorological data. UCT and CSIR are both sampling seawater as the ship sails, measuring chlorophyll, nutrients, ammonium and phytoplankton community composition, to name a few”, according to SANAP’s official announcement.
South Africa’s SANAE research project is an aspect of the government’s known interest in the application of space science and technology. Recall that ZACube-1’s main payload is a high frequency (HF) beacon transmitter used to help characterize the Earth’s ionosphere and to calibrate SANSA’s auroral radar installation at the SANAE-IV base in Antarctica.
The recently announced government’s R27 million investment in CPUT’s CubeSat program is to develop three more nano-satellites for an MDA satellite constellation that will assist South Africa’s ocean monitoring efforts, including in Antarctica and surrounding islands.
Joseph Ibeh is a Mandela Washington Fellow and Senior Editor at Space in Africa. He writes about Africa’s NewSpace companies and emerging national space programs.