South Africa’s CubeSats Promoting Space Ambitions


South Africa’s first CubeSat micro-satellite, ZACube-01, is nearly complete and will be launched later this year. A second CubeSat will be unveiled and launched next year.

ZACube-01, which measures 30x10x10 cm and weighs approximately three kilograms, was unveiled at the end of September at the French South African Institute of Technology (FSATI), a specialised unit at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology’s (CPUT) Bellville campus. CPUT, assisted by the University of Stellenbosch, is building the satellites.

Dr Sandile Malinga, CEO of the South African National Space Agency (SANSA), said the unveiling of the CubeSat was a significant milestone for South Africa, which is aiming to become a key player in the global space science and technology industry. “Our country is challenged in terms of skills and our government has set an ambitious goal of creating more jobs. I believe that space science has an important role in contributing to this goal,” he said.

According to CPUT, the CubeSat was developed by 50 students following FSATI’s Satellite Engineering Programme. The postgraduate programme, which is backed by the Department of Science and Technology (DST) and the National Research Foundation (NRF), aims at developing the human potential and intellectual capacity needed to grow South Africa’s space industry. The NRF has approved R21 million for the programme. FSATI has joined more than 60 CubeSat groups around the world and is viewed as one of the leaders in this field.

According to Stellenbosch University Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering Professor Herman Steyn, ZACube-01 is nearly finished. He was speaking at the SANSA National Space Programme project group meeting in Tshwane on Thursday. Steyn later told journalists that the satellite will be complete once some software is coded and a launch will most likely take place towards the end of the year, although no firm launch date has been announced.

FSATI said the satellite will carry three payloads: a camera, a radio frequency beacon that will be used to calibrate the radar antenna patterns of the Hermanus Magnetic Observatory at their base in Antarctica, and a “parrot” radio transponder and receiver.

ZACube-01 will be used for space science experiments and will be monitored from a ground station set up at FSATI’s premises on the Bellville campus.

Last year FSATI Deputy-Director Professor Robert van Zyl said students are currently involved in the development of a second CubeSat – ZACube-02, which will be unveiled next year. This will be a 10x10x10 cm microsatellite with a mass of one kilogramme.

Before nanosatellites, satellite projects were primarily limited to well-funded, established space programmes. This is no longer the case with nanosatellites, which have opened up space exploration to a wider world. They are typically produced by universities as training projects and to provide platforms for experiments developed by science students.

Meanwhile, Sansa is trying to rope in members of the public and stakeholders in order to develop its National Space Programme, which will implement the National Space Strategy. The agency has four operational divisions: Earth Observation, Space Science, Space Engineering and Space Operations.

With the increase in activity in South Africa’s space sector, the government has ratified international space legislation accepting liability for South African activities in space. The ratification of the Registration and Liability Conventions, signed on Tuesday, makes the government responsible for any damage caused by space objects.

South African space objects will be registered with the United Nations. “In our planning, we have to be cognisant of our responsibilities as a country,” Malinga said yesterday. “We now have a duty to ensure that we don’t populate the space environment with space junk indefinitely.”