Progress: Val Munsamisays the design of SA’s first satellite is almost complete. Picture: SUPPLIED
Progress: Val Munsamisays the design of SA’s first satellite is almost complete. Picture: SUPPLIED

Every day, the new South African National Space Agency (Sansa) CEO’s to-do list grows. But so do Val Munsami’s ambitions for the agency.

The former deputy director-general in the Department of Science and Technology who has been in the role since the start of 2017, is filled with the excitement of someone who had been watching Sansa’s activities and now can mould its direction. The agency, established six years ago to oversee SA’s activities in space and the use of space-related data, reports to the department, but "is an agency of all government", Munsami says.

With an area of 1.2-million square kilometres — about 10 Englands — SA has a lot of land and activities to monitor, including agricultural production, urban encroachment and the health of water systems. This does not include its large ocean territory. The most efficient way to do this is with satellites.

In 2010, when the National Space Strategy was published, it noted that "SA is increasingly reliant on space-based services and applications, particularly those in the domain of satellite Earth observations, communications and navigational positioning and timing". The country now relies even more on these services and depends on international satellites to provide data.

But reliance on foreign satellites means that South African satellite data users, which include about 40 national and provincial government departments, have no control over what images they are sent, what the images focus on and when they will get them.

SA’s satellite, EO-Sat-1 (Earth observation satellite one), has been in the pipeline for years, although there has been little visible progress.

"The design is more or less done," says Munsami. "The idea is to launch it in 2020."

The agency is conducting a design review to try to trim some kilograms — and with it millions of rand.

"You pay per kilogram to launch," Munsami says. "For a 400kg satellite, you’re going to pay R200m just to launch. As much as people want to put things on there, we had to be realistic in terms of the budget."

Countries  Agreed

The budget is about R500m, with 60% of contracts earmarked for Denel Spaceteq and 40% for South African space companies. The plan is for the satellite’s utility to extend beyond SA.

It will be an integral part of the African Resource Management Constellation, a planned collection of satellites from Kenya, Nigeria, Algeria and SA.

The four countries agreed to the constellation in 2009, but so far, only Nigeria has any satellites in orbit. SA’s satellite "will be an integral part" of this constellation, he says.

Munsami says there is a lack of access to data on the continent and a skills deficit.

In 2016, SA’s Inter-University Institute for Data-Intensive Astronomy launched the continent’s first cloud-based research data centre, the African Research Cloud.

Two proof-of-concept projects are being run on the cloud: radio astronomy and genomics.

The institute was initially formed to deal with the big-data challenges that SA’s 64-dish MeerKAT telescope and ultimately the giant Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio telescope will pose. But while radio astronomy has been a linchpin in building up SA’s big-data expertise, it is not the only field that needs to be able to process and analyse large quantities of data. Earth observation could form the third pilot project.

"The research cloud can be used for space applications across the continent," Munsami says. "For the Agricultural Research Council, they’re putting data racks in some of the [African SKA] partner countries, such as Botswana and Namibia.

Says Munsami: "What’s cool about that is that you’re sending high-performance computing platforms into other African countries and you’ll have this distributed network that can link up to form one super high-performance platform."

"Even at home, this sort of data management would make a big difference. Various government departments have their own data sets and data bases. We need to plug into those data bases and make that information available nationally.

"Once we start to converge data sets, that’s where the huge potential lies."

Munsami puts a lot of stock in the AU’s plans for space and skills development.

He chairs the AU committee tasked with developing Africa’s space plans.

"If you look at the space policy space, there’s a transformation happening in terms of how much governments are actually spending on science and technology. A few years ago, some African governments weren’t spending anything. Africa should be playing in this space," Munsami says.

"We don’t want foreign entities coming in and determining how things should be done. Africa needs to do this on its own," he says.

Munsami aims to position Sansa as a driving force in those developments.

His first order of business, though, is to conduct a strategic review of what Sansa does and what the government has mandated it to do.

"From that, we can start exploring other opportunities. For example, Sansa is not involved in satellite communications; we’re not involved in navigation and positioning to the extent that we’d like," he says.

"Those are areas that we think have huge benefits for the country and we need now to go and explore those opportunities," Munsami says.

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