Space technology grows locally

March 30th, 2014, Published in Articles: EE Publishers


South Africa may not have a satellite launch facility yet – it is on the cards for the future – but several satellites are under construction at various institutions and locations.

South Africa’s first satellite, SunSat, was built by students and staff at Stellenbosch University, and was launched by NASA in 1999. The outflow of the project was a company called Sunspace that did some incredible work in developing space systems and remote sensing cameras. In conjunction with Stellenbosch University the company built and launched SumbandilaSat for the Department of Science and Technology.  Lack of  projects funding  was one of the main problems SunSpace experienced which ultimatly resulted in it having to close its doors. On 11 July 2013 the Minister of Science and Technology, Derek Hanekom announced that the majority of SunSpace’s creditors accepted the Department’s offer of R55-million for the institution’s intellectual property and tangible assets. The offer is in line with a Cabinet decision that the satellite manufacturing company be absorbed into the South African National Space Agency (SANSA). In turn SANSA has entered into an agreement with Denel Dynamics to house the SunSpace capability. The main advantage to South Arica is that many years of expertise in satellite design and construction is not lost to the country.

On the heels of the Minister’s announcement Denel’s Group CEO, Riaz Saloojee said that Denel was involved in previous South African space programmes until 1996 and has a latent space capability including key staff that still work for Denel on various programmes, as well as the Houwteq satellite test facility near Grabouw in the Western Cape. “This opportunity will allow Denel to optimise the synergy between the SunSpace capabilities and the latent capability in Denel for the broader national technological benefit.”  Subsequently Denel launched “Spaceteq” as a newly-formed space engineering business unit of Denel Dynamics, incorporating satellite manufacturer, SunSpace.

Berthold Alheit, GM of Denel Spaceteq says its first project is to develop a multispectral, high-resolution, Earth observation satellite called EO-Sat1 for operation by SANSA by 2017.  This satellite will be used in the areas of food security, urban planning and development, safety and security and support for disaster management. EO-Sat1 will be based on the strong legacy inherited from the development of SumbandilaSat.

Satellites as a training ground for engineers

Stellenbosch  University is building two satellites: ZA-Aerosat and Deorbit Sail. ZA-Aerosat is part of the QB50 project funded in Europe led by a consortium of organisations under the Von Karman Institute in Brussels.

QB50 has the scientific objective to study in situ the temporal and spatial variations of a number of key constituents and parameters in the lower thermosphere (90-320 km) with a network of about 40 double CubeSats. These university-built CubeSats, to be launched into a 320 km circular orbit, will be separated by a few hundred kilometres and carry identical science sensors. The sensors will monitor parameters that will greatly increase our knowledge and understanding of this little-explored region of the E and F layers of the ionosphere.

ZA-Aerosat is a collaborative effort between the Electronic Systems Laboratory at the Stellenbosch University and the Cape Peninsula University of Technology. Besides the QB50 sensors to study the thermosphere, ZA-Aerosat will include a specially developed Star tracker. CPUT will provide the transceiver.

Stellenbosch University  is  also partnering with the  Surrey Space Centre at the University of Surrey, in the UK and institutions in several other European countries to  develop a system that can be incorporated into future satellites to enable the satellite, after it has served  its useful purpose, to be deorbited in a relatively short period of time. The project is a demonstration satellite named Deorbit Sail due for launch in October 2014 into a 650 km orbit. Once in orbit a large (5 x-5-m2)   sail will be deployed which will deorbit the satellite in approximately one year compared to a satellite without a sail which will stay in orbit 25 years or longer. If successful Deorbit Sail will make a major contribution to managing future space debris.

Image taken by TshepisoSat of the west coast of Arica

Image taken by TshepisoSat of the west coast of Africa.


The Cape Peninsula University of Technology’s TshepisoSat launched last year is doing well and is sending back pictures from its on-board camera. The camera is secondary to its main payload, a HF beacon operating on 14 099 kHz. The beacon will be used to characterise the HF radars operated by SANSA Space Sciences at the Antarctic, as part of the worldwide SuperDARN  project to study the ionosphere.


CUPT students ecstatic as they hear the first signals from TschepisoSat

Ecstatic CUPT students  hearing the first signals from TshepisoSat.

The university will soon initiate the beacon by launching the HF antenna. The rolling out of the HF antenna is taking longer than expected as engineers want to make sure they have the spinning of the satellite under control so that the spin will assist with the deployment of the antenna. In hindsight the camera will be a useful tool as the CPUT ground station will be able to view the deployment of the HF antenna.

Close to readiness for launch is DynaCube, a satellite project by the 2012 interns at the Denel Dynamics Engineering Academy of Learning, Gauteng. They so impressed the management of the company with their DynaCube satellite that it was decided to keep supporting the project. Normally an intern project finishes at the end of the year. The project will now continue and they hope to complete and test the satellite ready for launch.  The payload is focussed on particle radiation, and specifically the effect that this has on commercial-off-the-shelf electronic components within the satellite.

DynaCube satellite ground station at Denel Dynamics in Irene

DynaCube satellite ground station at Denel Dynamics in Irene.

Southern Africa Amateur Satellite Association is building a CubeSat that will carry a 20 kHz bandwidth transponder as well as selected student projects from several high schools. SA AMSAT has called for schools to submit projects for evaluation and hopes to make a final selection soon. KLETSkous (Chatterbox) is a totally volunteer imitative supported by component donations from Avnet-Kopp, RS Components;  PCB manufacturer TRAX, as well as donations from radio amateurs and companies.

There was another satellite in the sixties named Greensat, but for political reasons at the time, the project was abandoned.

South Africa can with say with pride that it is growing space nation!

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