Friday, February 29, 2008

Launching of South Africa's space agency

The fact that the creation of a South African Space Agency is now only a matter of months away is attracting international interest, including proposals for technological cooperation, to this country. "Word has gotten out that South Africa is very keen on putting together a space agency," reports Department of Science and Technology (DST) Space Science and Technology Manager Dr Val Munsami, "and people, internationally, are approaching us, in terms of becoming partners on new generation satellite programmes, so these are opportunities. We are targetting a number of international partnerships, in terms of being able to build competencies here."

"Obviously, our main focus is on our own indigenous satellite programme," he asserts. "The future satellite programme will be situated inside the space agency, and, once the agency kicks off, there is a whole business plan for the agency, and that includes a satellite programme. So, we might use these partnerships to build capacity - as long as, at the end, we can put our own satellites up. I think that's very important."

The DST is hopeful that the space agency could receive parliamentary approval by at least June. "It's a process," he points out. "It needs Cabinet and parliamentary approval. We're trying to put together an interim arrangement for the agency." Thus, when final Cabinet and parliamentary approval is granted, the space agency will be able to start its work immediately.

South Africa already has some of the best space infrastructure in Africa, and the new space agency will incorporate existing institutions. Which ones these should be has been debated for years. It has finally been decided that, initially at least, the space agency will take over, and be based upon, two established organisations. These are the Satellite Applications Centre (SAC) of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, and the Houwteq division of State-owned defence industrial group Denel.

"SAC is obvious. Its main focus is on satellite telemetry, tracking, and control. There's a lot of business opportunities it brings from this arena into the country," explains Munsami. "It's also quite critical for the space agency, given that we'll need mission control for our own satellites. So there are a lot of competencies within SAC that we are going to need for the new space programme."

Houwteq is a facility left over from the old, military, space programme of the 1980s. "But its infrastructure is quite critical in terms of the assembly, integration, and testing of our satellite platforms," he highlights. South Africa's second satellite, SumbandilaSat, which hopefully will be launched later this year, has been tested at Houwteq. "At the moment, Houwteq sits with Denel and we are busy in discussions with them regarding the acquisition of Houwteq," he adds. A lot of the infrastructure at Houwteq is now relatively old and will need replacing in the next few years.

The space agency will be an autonomous agency, owning and managing its own facilities and assets, which will interact with private companies, manage State investments in the public interest on a long-term basis, have high degrees of indepedence and focus, and attract the necessary skills. The space agency executive will report to a space agency board, which will be assisted by a Space Advisory Committee of experts, which could include international experts. Regulatory oversight will be provided by the Space Affairs Council.

The DST has a ten-year plan for the space science and technology, which includes the agency. At the end of the first year, the intent is to have the interim form of the agency in operation; to have gained approval of the National Space Science and Technology Strategy; and to be running continuing technology programmes and partnerships. By the end of five years, it is proposed that the space agency will be fully established, appropriate technology platforms (satellites) will be in space, human capital development will have been stimulated, and strategic international partnerships and projects established. By year ten the hope is that the space agency will be globally positioned, the counrty will have a resident space capacity in place, and the agency will be delivering appropriate services and products relating to space applications.

The space programme will have three key focus areas - innovation and economic growth, environment and resource management, and, safety and security. Innovation and economic growth will include agriculture, communications, mining, space science and exploration, and space technology transfer and spin-offs. Environment and resource management will include land management, rural development and urban planning, meteorological monitoring, hydrological monitoring, and ocean, coastal and marine management. Safety and security will encompass, amongst other things, disaster monitoring and relief, hazards forecasting and early warning, asset monitoring, and defence, peacekeeping and treaty monitoring.

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