Johannesburg: South Africa has launched its first satellite constellation developed entirely in the continent of Africa, a move hailed by the country’s Science and Innovation Minister Blade Nzimande as a milestone. Three locally produced nanosatellites, which made up the country’s first Maritime Domain Awareness Satellite (MDASat) constellation, were launched from Cape Canaveral in the United States on Thursday as part of American aerospace company SpaceX’s Transporter-3 mission.

Transporter-3, SpaceX’s third dedicated rideshare mission, carried a total of 105 spacecraft for various organisations and governments, including CubeSats, microsats, PocketQubes and orbital transfer vehicles. Minister Nzimande said funding and support of South Africa’s satellite construction industry by the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI) was reaping rewards.

“This will further cement South Africa’s position as an African leader in small satellite development, and help the country to capture a valuable share of a niche market in the fast-growing global satellite value chain,” he said. The launch of the first three satellites of the MDASat constellation comes three years after that of the most advanced South African nanosatellite till date, ZACube-2, as a technology demonstrator for the constellation.

“Since its launch in 2018, ZACube-2 has been providing cutting-edge very high frequency (VHF) data exchange communication systems to the country’s maritime industry, as a contribution to Operation Phakisa,” Nzimande said, adding that the DSI had invested 27 million rands over three years in the development of the MDASat constellation. Operation Phakisa focuses on unlocking the economic potential of South Africa’s oceans, which the department said could contribute up to R177 billion to the GDP by 2033 and between 8,00,000 and a million direct jobs.

The DSI is implementing this work through the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT). Although South Africa has been involved, on a relatively small scale, in space activities since the dawn of the space age in 1957, the national space industry requires specialised skills.

The minister noted that the lack of space professionals and engineers had prompted the DSI and its National Research Foundation (NRF) to initiate a human capital development programme at CPUT under the French South African Institute of Technology (F’SATI) cube satellite (CubeSat) programme, with the introduction of a Master’s in Electrical Engineering focusing on satellite systems. “As part of this programme, students are taught engineering principles using CubeSats as training tools,” Nzimande said.

“CubeSats are built using the same engineering principles as any other satellite, hence highly specialised and advanced skills are acquired through this programme, he said. The full MDASat constellation will be an operational constellation of nine cube satellites that will detect, identify and monitor vessels in near real-time in support of South African maritime domain awareness.

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