South Africa’s Space Expedition Sets the Path for the Continent

Space Technology

In today’s African space community, South Africa is a clear center of gravity. It has some of the most advanced ground-based space infrastructure in the world, a strong space supply chain, and public sector organizations dedicated to expanding the space sector and national capabilities. The heart of South Africa’s space story, however, is not where it has been, but rather where it is moving—and the results will impact space activity throughout the continent.

In African Space, a Catalyzing Force

Since its inception over four years ago, the MeerKAT telescope, which discovered Nkalakatha, has made world-record-breaking discoveries. The 64-radio antenna array is, however, a prelude to the SKA (Square Kilometre Array), a considerably bigger and more powerful telescope set to launch in the coming years.

The SKA is a global endeavor to construct the world’s largest radio telescope. The high- and mid-frequency dishes will be located in South Africa’s arid Karoo region, while the low-frequency antennas will be located in Australia. While the Karoo will serve as the continent’s hub, other African countries will also house radio telescopes as part of the SKA. It’s an instance of how the South African space missions may re-energize space activities across the African continent, a case of “partnership leadership,” as I like to put it.

Other examples include how South African satellites were built in collaboration with academics and industry and launched into space by international launch providers. It’s also valid in the context of the African Space Agency (AfSA), which is headquartered in Egypt and covers the entire continent.

“South Africa played a significant role in establishing the plans for the African Space Agency,” said Pontsho Maruping, chairperson of the South African Council for Space Affairs. “Part of the plan is to build capabilities in Africa, but we’re also considering joint missions.  If countries develop complementary systems, they will be able to share data evenly among partners.”

The international space community flourishes on collaboration, yet South Africa’s dependence on space services and products purchased from other nations may necessitate further support for the development of indigenous capabilities. For Maruping, this will necessitate certain changes to the Space Affairs Act, which was first passed in 1993.

“That statute was written before we had a space agency or firms working in space,” Maruping explained. “What we want to concentrate on is developing enabling legislation which will develop local capacity, local skills, promote the growth of local enterprises, and create an infrastructure that will support local space companies.”

In the Private Sector, It’s All About Confidence

 

Today, South Africa has a robust space supply chain, with local suppliers capable of delivering the customized parts and materials required for space assets. This supply chain dates back to the Apartheid regime when international sanctions forced South Africa to develop most of its technology (especially in the defense industry) with indigenous resources and capabilities.

The political calculation shifted once Apartheid ended in 1994, yet the supply chain continued. Because the knowledge and technologies required in defense translate easily to the types of materials required for space activities, South African space firms now have access to raw materials and precise production.

“We have all the components” for a thriving commercial space sector, according to James Barrington-Brown, who is the Chief Executive Officer of the New Space Systems as well as a 30-year satellite industry veteran.

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