On the Cover
On the Cover
SA heads for final frontier
Wednesday, 08 June 2011 07:37
Written by Farzana Rasool
But should it focus on more critical needs?
South Africa lags behind the rest of the world in several important areas. These include employment rates, broadband penetration and digital literacy.
The country also lags behind the rest of the world in several not so important areas. These include invading other countries, the number of large coffee shop chains we have, and possibly space exploration.
Department of Science and Technology
(DST) launched the South African National Space Agency (SANSA) last year, is bidding against Australia to host the world’s largest telescope, and is trying to attain a troubled satellite manufacturing company.
“South Africa is increasingly reliant on space-based applications. It is likely that a decade from now the country will be a primary user of such products and services, and an important contributor to the global space science and technology arena,” says SANSA board chairman Maurice Magugumela.
SANSA says space investment will advance society and bring economic benefits.
However, this is not a unanimously accepted view. Several questions have been raised by opposition parties and parliamentary portfolio committee members around whether money pumped into space initiatives will not be better spent on more critical needs, like housing and food.
Deputy director-general of research development and innovation at the DST, Val Munsami, says SANSA’s vision is to be a leading contributor to the perpetual advancement of societies through the benefits of space science and technology.
Its goals are to be world class, have efficient services and societal benefits, do cutting-edge research, development, innovation, technology and applications, have a globally competitive space industry, and make SA a globally recognised space citizen.
“Some of our major focus areas will be to capture a global market share for South Africa’s space systems and contribute to a knowledge economy through innovation and industrial development,” says SANSA CEO Sandile Malinga.
Overall, SANSA activities will support the objectives of the National Space Strategy to improve livelihoods, increase scientific literacy, intellectual capital, new knowledge and space applications.
It was launched by the DST in December and was given R93 million from the department’s budget for the 2011/2012 financial year. Malinga adds that some additional funding will go to the SANSA Space Science directorate, resulting in the final budget for 2011 being about R103 million.
shadow minister of science and technology
says there are two distinct halves of SA’s space science programme – astronomy and satellites.
“Astronomy researches the universe and expands humankind’s knowledge of the origin of life and stretches the skills of physicists in answering many scientific questions.”
In terms of satellites, she says the idea of SANSA is to offer research and development of commercial applications for satellites, commission satellite services for earth observation services of government, social and economic development, and observe land use and monitoring traffic flows (ships around the coast, armies on the move).
Square Kilometre Array
(SKA) telescope forms part of the astronomy focus within SANSA. It will be the largest in the world, and SA is bidding against Australia to host it.
Malinga says the SKA will position SA as a science destination of choice and bring in large foreign investment.
“SKA is an important international programme for showcasing SA’s astronomical expertise, as well as leading-edge, hi-tech instrument or computer hardware and software design, engineering and manufacture. We are involved in designing and making instruments that have not been designed elsewhere in the world,” says Shinn.
She adds that this expertise is exportable. Whether SA wins the bid outright, or is part of a southern hemisphere team with Australia to host the project, this is an important opportunity to expand the country’s expertise in radio astronomy.
Adrian Tiplady, SKA site characterisation manager, says the human capital development side of the SKA is very important. It will attract youth into science and technology.
“Science is always perceived as difficult. It’s become a scarce skill. To properly participate in the global knowledge economy we have to have a large amount of people in science, engineering and technology fields.”
By January, South Africa had spent R258 million on the project. How much it will still have to put in is undetermined, according to Tiplady.
Microsatellite company Sunspace will lean on government to fill its order books, at an estimated cost of R100 million.
It developed South Africa’s second national satellite, SumbandilaSat, which is providing geographical imaging for research purposes.
Cabinet in March approved the controversial majority equity stake acquisition in Sunspace of between 55% and 60% by government.
Science and technology minister
" rel=tag>Naledi Pandor said in her budget speech: “We remain convinced that we have the technological capability to develop a medium-sized satellite industry; our plans have not received support this year, but we will continue to argue for and work toward South Africa developing her own competence in satellite building.”
“Is it necessary to build and launch our own space vehicles when we could buy the images from abroad? I’m still waiting to hear a convincing argument that building and launching our own satellites will deliver any financial return on investment of taxpayers’ money,” says Shinn in light of the acquisition.
She also says SA’s BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China) partners are far more advanced in this, so it would be preferable that SA has co-operation agreements where each partner contributes specific expertise. However, SANSA says the Sunspace acquisition will allow SA to build its own technical space system capability. “It will also allow for the development of other technologies in optronics, radar, advanced materials, energy efficiency, electronics and control systems.”
Munsami explains that a good reason for SA to have its own satellites is that it currently has to pay large amounts to get access to satellite imagery, and that means capital flowing out of the country.
Also, when using foreign satellites, SA can’t position them where it needs to efficiently, like in the case of disasters, such as floods.
Given the possibility of future mining enterprises on the moon or in the asteroid field, it would be crucial for SA to already have a launch capability at that time, adds Munsami.
A richer world
It cost R26 million to build the SumbandilaSat, with an additional R12 million to launch, and an alleged R52 million more to repair damage, according to Shinn.
She says this amount is too much to have been spent on a problematic satellite, but Munsami says the SumbandilaSat was meant as a technology demonstrator satellite, one to help the department get back on the path of construction.
It had been constructed cheaply and does not have a dual redundancy, meaning it does not have a backup for every system and this is where the problems came in.
Pandor added that the DST is looking forward to Sunspace and SANSA producing plans for Sumbandila2 based on the prototype SumbandilaSat.
“When I asked Pandor for the ROI on SumbandilaSat, I got four pages of PR guff in reply. All the research figures I’ve seen date from 2006/7 when the world was a richer place,” says Shinn.
Along with other members of the science and technology parliamentary portfolio committee, she questioned the need to have a space programme at all, when SA experiences significant developmental issues.
She fears SANSA is a funding black hole and should be privately funded. “Malinga is apparently asking, initially, for R600 million a year to run SANSA. The DST is preparing a proposal now to take to treasury justifying this spend. I doubt the SA taxpayer can afford this.”
However, Malinga says in comparison with budgets currently allocated to needs such as housing, education and nutrition, the amount allocated to space science and technology is negligible.
“The benefits of this investment contribute to support those priority focus areas. Satellite systems are used, as an example, for water monitoring, agriculture, tele-medicine, tele-education, crime prevention, resource monitoring, navigation, communication and human settlement planning.”
There are plenty of reasons to not just give people money for food or houses. It doesn’t put them above the poverty line, says Tiplady.
“If you look at the G8 countries, 50% of their economies are based in knowledge and knowledge services. The top 10 products in the world are hi-tech equipment products and the only way to produce those is to invest in a knowledge economy.”
Munsami says the importance of a well-functioning space infrastructure cannot be over-emphasised. It touches almost every aspect of daily lives, from GPS, television, telecommunication, banking, time coding, healthcare information and even cellular phones, all come via space technology and satellites.
He says the DST is growing a home base of scholarships for satellite development and human capital within space technology.
Shinn agrees that from the space strategy there will arise hi-tech instrument design and building expertise with export potential.
With the strategy’s implementation will come investment into the development of skills, the provision of geo-spatial data and information for societal benefits and improved service delivery, the generation of new knowledge for the knowledge economy, the development of new technologies and an industry that ensures sustainable development and improves the livelihoods of South Africans, says Malinga.
He adds that no plans exist currently for South Africans to actually go into space, as the need to deliver benefits to SA through existing technologies and satellites takes priority.
Talks of spending cuts for US space programme NASA and the Russian space programme could be problematic for SA, says Shinn.
“As expenditure on big space exploration is dwindling in the northern hemisphere, those who’ve been active in it for decades longer than we have are entering the markets we’re going into (micro satellites), as that’s where the growth is.”
She says they are ahead in expertise and experience. “Our only competitive advantage is tax-payer subsidisation, which will supposedly make us competitive.”
Munsami says the American and Russian space industry has been historically driven by technology supremacy to show off who was the better. For South Africa, it is more of a community-driven aspect.
It is not on South Africa’s horizon to go to Mars, but rather to focus on communication, positioning, navigation and earth observation. However, it would not be playing catch-up with what is already established, says Munsami. It will be more of an augmenting of existing technologies.
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