SOUTH Africa made history on Thursday with three locally produced nanosatellites being launched into space.
The first Maritime Domain Awareness Satellite constellation (MDASat-1) was launched as part of Elon Musk’s company's SpaceX Transporter-3 mission.
The launch took place at Cape Canaveral, in the US, on January 13, 2022.
The South African satellites were launched aboard SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket as a “rideshare payload” of the company's Transporter-3 (or ISI Launch 36P) mission and was be deployed in low Earth orbit, at an altitude of 525km.
Transporter-3, SpaceX's third dedicated rideshare mission, will be carrying a total of 105 spacecraft, including CubeSats, microsats, PocketQubes, and orbital transfer vehicles.
The MDASat-1 launch marks a significant milestone for South Africa, marking the first launch of a satellite constellation, developed entirely on the African continent. Minister of Higher Education, Science and Innovation Blade Nzimande said the Department of Science and Innovation's (DSI's) funding and support of the country's satellite construction industry was reaping rewards.
“This will further cement South Africa's position as an African leader in small satellite development and help the country to capture a valuable share of a niche market in the fast-growing global satellite value chain,” said Nzimande.
The launch of the first three satellites of the MDASat constellation follows three years after the launch of the most advanced South African nanosatellite to date, ZACube 2, as a technology demonstrator for the MDASat constellation.
“Since its launch in 2018, ZACube-2 has been providing cutting-edge very high frequency (VHF) data exchange communication systems to the country's maritime industry, as a contribution to Operation Phakisa. The DSI had invested R27 million, over three years, in the development of the MDASat constellation. The DSI is implementing this work through the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT),” said Nzimande.
Although South Africa has been involved, on a relatively small scale, in space activities since the dawn of the space age in 1957.
Nzimande said that the lack of space professionals and engineers had prompted the DSI and its entity, the National Research Foundation (NRF), to initiate a human capital development programme at CPUT, under the French South African Institute of Technology (F'SATI) cube satellite (CubeSat) programme, with the introduction of a Masters in Electrical Engineering, focusing on satellite systems.
“As part of this programme, students are taught engineering principles using CubeSats as training tools. CubeSats are built using the same engineering principles as any other satellite, hence highly specialised and advanced skills are acquired through this programme,” said the minister.