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Exciting Times for the SA Aerospace Industry – Here’s Why MDASat Matters

South Africa celebrated a milestone on January 13, 2022, when the Maritime Domain Awareness Satellite constellation (MDASat-1) was launched into space from Cape Canaveral in the United States.

SpaceX launched three South African nanosatellites aboard a Falcon 9 rocket, cementing SA’s position as the African leader in small satellite development.

A first for South Africa

At the time, the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI) described the launch as a “first for the South African aerospace industry”.

Why? Because the MDASat-1 – made up of cube satellites that will detect, identify and monitor ships in near real time – was developed entirely in Africa.

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket booster ready to launch the Transporter-3 into low Earth orbit. Photo: Spacex

Other African countries – Kenya, Morocco, Nigeria and Ghana – have sent satellites into space, but they were not developed and designed in Africa.

What is the MDASat-1 constellation?

MDASat-1 is the second phase of Operation Phakisa, an initiative focused on South Africa’s ocean economy. The first phase of Operation Phakisa started in 2018.

The MDA constellation is equipped with an enhanced Automatic Identification System (AIS) receiver and can receive messages on the AIS and AIS long-range channels.

The three satellites in this constellation are smaller than standard satellites, weighing between 1 kg and 10 kg, “an affordable, functional option,” according to Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT).

In conversation with Sansa engineer Justin Witten

We spoke to Justin Witten, the SA National Space Agency’s (Sansa) engineering manager, to understand what the launch of the MDASat-1 constellation means for South Africa and the continent.

We imagine the launch was satisfying for everyone involved in what Witten describes as a collaborative effort, especially when we see the result of years of work finally paying off.

“The DSI has invested a lot of time in setting up the nanosatellite development capability at CPUT, and now with the successful launch and in-orbit commissioning, the team is quite relieved and excited,” said Witten.

Now, however, Witten adds: ‘the real learning begins’.

Cheryl Kahla: Some time has passed since launch; how has the process of getting the satellites online and extracting value from the launch progressed?

Justin Witten: “The setup is up and running and working as expected – within the nominal performance thresholds.

“Testing of each subsystem is underway and once that is complete, the phasing (distance between each satellite) will be the next step.”

The satellites are part of the Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) system. What is the MDA in layman’s terms and what is the value of the system?

“Maritime Domain Awareness is essential for any country with a coastline. Such countries will be given an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) for which they are responsible and from which they can derive economic, scientific and social benefits.

“So you have to be able to monitor shipping traffic through those waters and, of course, the impact on the ecosystem.

“This requires data and information management systems to create that awareness through timely produced data sets that are ready for analysis and that will inform necessary actions to protect the ocean and its resources.”

mdasat-1 launch
Engineering Qualification Model (EQM) of MDASat-1 being tested after environmental testing has been performed Photo: CPUT.

How did the project and the collaboration with CPUT come about? What is Sansa’s role and how will the partnership work in terms of collaboration in the future?

“Due to DSI’s long-standing commitment to space science and technology development, the development of a nanosatellite development capability has been a significant achievement.

“The MDASat project is proof of that.

“Sansa has been involved in other projects with CPUT and under its mandate has continued to support the nanosatellite project by providing Systems Engineering support.

“This involved a range of activities – from working on developing and refining the technical requirements to participating in project reviews.

“Going forward, Sansa will provide project management and further technical support, such as Concurrent Engineering support, to help determine the feasibility of more new missions as we become more ambitious.”

Many South Africans may find the focus on space projects too far removed from improving their everyday lives. What are some of the benefits that these types of projects will bring to the country, now and in the future?

“It’s important to be able to monitor legitimate seagoing vessels within our EEZ, and by overlaying other data sets we can detect those that shouldn’t be there.

“To give a simple example, this in turn positively impacts the availability of the ocean’s resources, which translates into a greater number of jobs, and ensures the sustainability of the ocean’s resources, as these can now be better managed.

“But this is just one kind of mission.

“Other satellites are able to monitor water quality and accessibility for services, soil health and pollination levels to help agriculture increase productivity and quality, and monitor human settlements for land use planning. The list is endless”.

MDASat-1a, MDASat-1b, and MDASat-1c in the CPUT cleanroom after the integration was completed. Photo: CPUT.

The launch of the satellites as part of the SpaceX payload was also quite significant in its own right. How has the burgeoning private space industry impacted what is possible for space organizations, especially in terms of timelines and innovation?

“With the increased availability of experienced private (local and international) industry providing mature products, space agencies – and therefore the public – can focus on establishing knowledge-based decision-making solutions with lower risks and costs, with greater impact in tackling socio-economic challenges.

“A critical mass of local innovation requires substantial initial investment which, if not adequately supplied from the private market, will be provided by government balancing short-term socio-economic challenges with long-term innovation impact.

“The success of an independent, growing and rapidly changing aerospace industry allows the agencies to focus on adding value to the gaps in the innovation system, as well as across-the-horizon technologies.”

These are exciting times for Sansa. What can South Africa look forward to from Sansa in the coming months and years, without necessarily going into the details of various projects currently underway?

“These are indeed exciting times for the space industry in South Africa.

“As you may know, Sansa is currently involved in the Space Infrastructure Hub, which is a massive upgrade of the infrastructure that supports the space value chain.

“That is, space-related facilities and capabilities needed to develop, manufacture and operate satellite missions, then manage data and produce analytics-ready data products to enable decision-making and support service delivery.

“This will make a tangible difference at all levels, from the national, provincial, district and even down to the local community level.”

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