Why the South African Space Industry is Progressive

South Africa is the undisputed industrial hotspot of Africa’s nascent space industry. The industry has come a long way from the early 1960s when NASA established a Satellite Tracking and Data Acquisition Network (STADAN) station in Hartebeesthoek to track deep space probes, as one of the 14 similar stations set up around the globe. Since the early days, the space industry has grown through several phases of development and witnessed different industry players at various eras.

The era following the 1960s Hartebeesthoek bubble featured active government involvement in what was described as a “nefarious defence experiment in space” by the apartheid regime between late 1970s to early 1990s. According to Guy Martin in this article, the government through the help of Isreal built four space rockets, and launched three between 1989 and 1990, but without useful payloads. The defence space experiment quickly came to an end following the shortage of funding and South Africa joined the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR). The regime required the end of ‘space military programs’ which led to the destruction of a launch pad at the Overberg test range and the cancellation of the Greensat spy satellite program.

The space defence era was shortlived, but it was a great antecedent to the emergence of South Africa’s civil space era. One, the ambitious program led a culture of political and military goodwill in the use of space science and technology in South Africa. Government’s interest in space was already a familiar public component of the post-apartheid government bureaucracy, although with huge challenges. Second, the space defence era created a technical talent pool and a business ecosystem. According to Guy Martin, “over 1000 people were involved in South Africa’s space programme by the time it concluded in 1994. Most were employed by Kentron, Houwteq and Somchem (today entities of state-owned Denel)”.

The civil space era in South Africa’s modern-day space industrial history has its roots in the Stellenbosch University Satellite (SUNSAT) academic program which was started in 1992 at Stellenbosch University. The SunSat-1, developed by engineering graduates at Stellenbosch University, was successfully launched in 1999 aboard NASA’s Delta II rocket from Vandenberg AFB.

In 2005, the Department of Science and Technology launched a short-term(3 year) satellite programme aimed at growing technical capacity in all aspects of a typical space mission – scientific, technical, policy and regulatory aspects of conducting a space activity. The programme was managed by Stellenbosch University and SunSpace, a spin-off company from the SUNSAT academic programme at the university, was contracted to develop the satellite.

SumbandilaSat (meaning pathfinder or ‘to lead the way’ in the local Venda language) was successfully launched in September 2009 and operated until mid-2011 by SunSpace. According to this article, “the satellite was designed, built and tested in South Africa by more than 40 local companies, demonstrating the capability of the South African industry to support a national space programme”. The success of the SumbandilaSat collaboration among local companies ushered in a nascent commercial space industry era in South Africa.

The commercial space industry era, although still nascent, witnessed the nanosatellite and cubesat bubbles in the major commercial space clusters in the Western Cape. South Africa’s commercial space industrial growth did not just happen overnight. It has antecedents and spinoff frameworks that could serve as a model for other African countries who desire to leapfrog their space industry. The South African model features a collaboration between the three major pieces of an industrial ecosystem puzzle – academic institutions, government goodwill and private sector grit.

South Africa has a variety of institutions that form a piece of the puzzle in the research & development, exploration and utilisation of space. The institutions form the nucleus of the nation’s space industry. 50 Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT) postgraduate students, through the CubeSat Programme of the French South African Institute of Technology (F’SATI), developed Africa’s first nanosatellite, named ZACUBE-1, in 2013. CPUT created a spin-out company Amaya Space to scale innovations in nanosatellites following over a decade of experience in space R&D. CPUT, through its spin-out company, is set to launch a larger nanosatellite, named ZAcube-2, as part of a constellation of nanosatellites to be used by the Department of Science and Technology and the Department of Environmental Affairs.

Stellenbosch University, the mother of South Africa’s civil space research, established its second spin-out company – CubeSpace (first was SunSpace) to commercialize its microsatellite programme. CubeSpace built the ZA-AeroSat mini-satellite for the European Union’s QB50 constellation of 50 CubeSats. QB50 is an international network of miniaturized satellites for multi-point, in-situ measurements in the lower thermosphere and re-entry research.

The second piece of South Africa’s space industry puzzle is government participation and support to the ecosystem. Before 2010, the Department of Science and Technology, the South African Council for Space Affairs and other government departments were at the forefront of developing policies, harnessing international deals and organizing local space programmes. In 2010, the South African National Space Agency, an agency of the Department of Science and Technology, was established to manage the space industry.

The South African government invested in the construction of the Karoo Array Telescope (MeerKAT) as a precursor for the Square Kilometer Array (SKA) in the Northern Cape Province. The SKA is the largest radio telescope in the world in development by a consortium of around 100 organisations across about 20 countries. According to this report, “South Africa has spent over ZAR 1.2 b (175 m USD, 125 m EUR) on the SKA project as of 2011, including a precursor telescope, the Karoo Array Telescope (MeerKAT). Funding in 2011 is ZAR 500 m (69.7 m USD, 49.65 m EUR), more than five times the funding for SANSA”.

Another big actor in the SA’s defence and aerospace industry is Denel’s Spaceteq – a subsidiary of Denel Dynamics, a division of Denel SOC Ltd, a South African armaments development and manufacturing company entirely owned by the South African Government. Spaceteq incorporated the satellite manufacturer, SunSpace, and absorbed its assets, engineering talents and legacies including the SumbandilaSat. Spaceteq is developing the EOSat-1, a high-resolution multispectral imaging satellite for SANSA which will form part of the African Resource Management Constellation (ARMC). Spaceteq is a member of the International Astronautical Federation and delivers bespoke satellite services to foreign clients.

The third piece of South Africa’s space industry puzzle is private sector grit. Founded in 2008, the Cape Town-based SCS Aerospace Group, a conglomerate of four South Africa’s largest space companies, is leading the private sector commercial space front in South Africa. Companies within the Space Commercial Services (SCS) group includes the Space Advisory Company, SCS Space, NewSpace Systems, and Space4Development.  The group has provided services and products in 19 countries, representing 5 continents as per this report.

SCS Space in collaboration with other companies and institutions built the nSight-1 – a 2.5 kg nanosatellite with the newly developed SCS Gecko multispectral imager. nSight-1 was launched to the International Space Station on 18 April 2017 and was successfully deployed into 400km low-Earth orbit on the 25 May 2017 as a part of the European Commission’s QB50 project.

There are obviously other companies and institutions providing innovations in the space industry value chain. Mzanzisat is building a satellite infrastructure to provide internet access to remote communities in South Africa. Swift Geospatial, Delta AV Aerospace and Grip Company – a subsidiary of SCS Aerospace Group, are other South African space companies featured in the 2017/2018 Newspace People’s Global Ranking.

There is a dearth of data and insights on the market cap of South Africa’s space industry, number of companies, and its contribution to the nation’s GDP. Perhaps, we could conduct a benchmarking study of the space industry in 2019. This report suggests that about 100-200 organizations are involved in commercial aerospace activities in South Africa, excluding aviation, as of 2011; there is a likely high increase in the past seven years. According to the Airbus White Paper entitled “The Great Enabler: Aerospace in Africa”, South Africa’s aerospace sector, ranked as the 33rd largest aerospace manufacturing nation in the world, directly employs around 15,000 highly skilled engineers and is estimated to support at least 60,000 further skilled jobs in the economy. South Africa’s aerospace sector is worth $1.8 billion in market size. It is unclear what percentage of these “aero space” sector figures are specific to the space industry in South Africa. However, the figures provide insights into a broad spectrum of the progress made in the space industry in South Africa, the fastest growing cluster in Africa.

There is a remarkable and intentional collaboration between government agencies, academic institutions and private sector companies in the development of space industry ecosystem. The ecosystem was analyzed in this article as a puzzle that requires all-three fundamental pieces to make sense at an industrial scale. The ecosystem suffers funding challenges but spin-offs (SunSpace, CubeSpace and MayaSpace) from academic institutions, business rescues (SunSpace & Spaceteq), collaboration (SCS Aerospace Group) and local patronages have kept the industry sustainable. It is a model ecosystem for other African countries to adopt to booster a thriving space ecosystem.

Joseph Ibeh conducts research and writes about emerging technologies and Africa’s growing startup ecosystem. He is a Mandela Washington Fellow and holds a B.A in History and International Studies.

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