Space in South Africa

Space in South Africa

South Africa has a rich heritage of involvement in space science and technology. The country’s involvement in modern astronomy dates to 1685. In 1820, a permanent observatory was established outside Cape Town. Astronomy has been practised continuously since then, an uninterrupted history spanning more than 180 years and culminating with the construction of the Southern African Large Telescope in Sutherland. The country has been an active participant in the exploration of space since the dawn of the Space Age. From the 1950s to the 1970s satellites were tracked to determine the effects of the upper atmosphere on their orbits. Lunar and interplanetary missions were supported from a tracking station at Hartebeesthoek (near Krugersdorp). This station received images of the planet Mars taken by the Mariner IV spacecraft – the first images of Mars and of another planet to be received on Earth.

In the late 1980s South Africa commenced a military programme to develop a launcher and a reconnaissance satellite but this was discontinued in 1994. In 1999, the first South African satellite, Sunsat, was lofted into space as a NASA-sponsored secondary payload on the rocket that delivered much larger Argos satellite into orbit. The 64-kg Sunsat microsatellite was built by staff and students at the University of Stellenbosch. The team that built Sunsat is presently planning a second, more capable, South African satellite.

In 2005, the Department of Science and Technology commenced the Sumbandila satellite programme. The main objective of this programme is to build capacity in all aspects of a national space programme: satellite engineering, satellite operations, definition of user needs, applications development, regulatory issues, policy issues, etc. Sumbandila is equipped with an optical imager that can deliver images with a 6.25-metre resolution in six colour bands in the visible and near infrared. The satellite also has a store-and-forward communications payload and some other experimental payloads.

South Africa has a variety of institutions that play a significant role in the scientific study, exploration and utilisation of space. These institutions, situated in academia, the science councils and industry, have broad competencies in satellite applications, satellite engineering and space science, and all their supporting technologies. The existing infrastructure and skilled workforce, both inside these facilities and in wider industry supporting them, allows South Africa to position itself as a regional hub of space science and technology. This can be used as a basis for strengthening ties with industry in established spacefaring nations, and for developing links with other emerging national space initiatives, particularly in Africa.

South Africa is an active participant in the international space arena. South African space professionals participate in numerous forums, such as the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space. South Africa has ratified and/or signed several international space treaties governing the space activities of independent States. The primary South African legislative instrument governing the regulation of both governmental and non-governmental space-related activities is the Space Affairs Act, No. 84 of 2 July 1993, as amended by the Space Affairs Amendment Act, No. 64 of 6 October 1995. Section 4 of the Space Affairs Act establishes the South African Council for Space Affairs under the authority of the Minister of Trade and Industry to implement the regulatory, monitoring and registration functions of the Act. South African national space legislation has been adopted in accordance with international space treaties.

The contribution of space to sustainable development received much attention in the Johannesburg World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002. This led to South Africa playing a prominent role in the international space arena in the use of space for sustainable development in Africa, particularly in regard to water. South Africa was selected to play leading role in the Group on Earth Observations (GEO), an international partnership created at the Earth Observation Summit, held and initiated by the United States in July 2003. The objective of the GEO is to coordinate a dedicated global initiative to work towards the creation of a new comprehensive, sustainable and globally coordinated Earth observation system, called GEOSS. The GEO is a direct response to the outcomes of the World Summit on Sustainable Development and is one of several international partnerships to implement the Summit’s Johannesburg Plan of Implementation. South Africa’s contribution to GEOSS is the South African Earth Observation Strategy (SAEOS), which provides a framework to integrate all forms of Earth observation in South Africa.

Given the accelerated pace of space science and technology developments in South Africa since 2000, in 2003 a number of government departments established the National Working Group on Space Science and Technology to improve coordination of space-related activities among government departments and agencies in the South Africa. The emphasis is on linking space to national priorities, particularly with regard to issues of poverty reduction, disaster management, economic development, technological empowerment, and improved quality of life.

In 2006, the Minister of Trade and Industry appointed new members of the South African
Council for Space Affairs. The Council overseas space activities and advises the Minister
on all matters pertaining to space activities in the Republic. The Department of Trade and
Industry (DTI) established a Space Secretariat to support the work of the Space Council
and other space activities falling within the mandate of the DTI. In early 2008, the Space
Council started the development of a South African space policy to provide a high-level
framework for all public and private sector space activities in the Republic. The draft policy
was released for public comment in mid-2008. This policy places a strong emphasis on
the peaceful uses of outer space for sustainable development and socio-economic benefit.

In early 2007 the Department of Science and Technology (DST) was mandated by Cabinet
to develop plans for the establishment of a South African space agency. The DST commenced
work on the drafting of the necessary legislation to establish the space agency and also
started developing a national space science and technology strategy to guide implementation
of the future space programme.