Nanosatellites to boost SA maritime security

Nanosatellite.

The Department of Science and Innovation (DSI) is investing R18.9 million in the development of nanosatellites to increase maritime domain awareness – a first in providing communication services for the maritime sector. DSI, also known as the Department of Science and Technology (DST), said in a statement South Africa needs “a more strategic and co-ordinated approach to ensure optimal surveillance of the waters off its coast, including shipping movements in the country’s exclusive economic zone”. This will promote better maritime domain awareness and “enhance maritime security”, one component of Operation Phakisa to boost South Africa’s blue water economy launched by former president Jacob Zuma in 2014.

Funding for the maritime nanosatellites was channelled through the Technology Innovation Agency (TIA), a DSI entity, to the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT), a leading roleplayer in growing space science and technology in South Africa. The university previously developed nanosatellites and cube satellites (CubeSats), demonstrating advanced technological capabilities. The pair of maritime industry nanosatellites will be powered by “M2MSat” technology, in the form of cutting-edge VHD Data Exchange System (VDES) software-defined radios for machine-to-machine (M2M) communication.

A software-defined radio (SDR) system uses software for modulation and demodulation of radio signals, performing significant amounts of signal processing in a general-purpose computer. The technology brings flexibility, cost-efficiency and power to drive communications forward, with wide benefits. Innovative SDR technology will provide emerging M2M and Internet of Things applications capable of delivering complex analytics and ubiquitous positioning of high-value assets, as well as mission-critical services, at a lower cost than traditional satellite systems deployment.

Developed collaboratively between CPUT and local company Stone Three Communications, the M2MSat technology advances state-of-the-art in space innovation, improving on the technology aboard CPUT’s ZACube-2 nanosatellite, launched in 2018. “In the South African context, the space industry ecosystem – including supporting space engineering programmes, human capacity development, infrastructure investments and technological innovations – is part of high-end infrastructure sectors critical to the country’s economic recovery,” the DSI said. “The development and commercialisation of the M2MSat platform will position South Africa as a key contributor of innovation in the space sector globally, feeding into the space value chain, growing partnerships with industry, and fast-tracking creation and exploitation of space knowledge and innovation,” according to the statement.

In December 2018 a Russian Soyuz rocket launched the 4kg ZACube-2 satellite, a precursor mission to a constellation of nanosatellites ttol be engineered by CPUT and its consortium over the next several years. The constellation will be used by the DSI and the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries  (DEFF) as part of Operation Phakisa. The ship tracking satellites will form the MDASat (maritime domain awareness satellite) constellation of nine nanosatellites.

The project has been allocated nearly R100 million over five years, with the DSI investing R16.5 million in ZACube-2 and a further R27 million allocated between 2019 and 2021. In late 2019 CPUT concluded the preliminary design review of the MDASat constellation. ZACube-2 demonstrates ship automatic identification system (AIS) and medium resolution payload technologies.

The satellite is managed by the DSI and the SA National Space Agency (SANSA), in co-operation with the University of Montpellier, the French embassy and the Paris Chamber of Commerce. The satellite programme graduated over 60 masters students and developed a suite of communications products marketed internationally through Amaya Space. Amaya Space sells components to the global nanosatellite market through its Scottish distribution partner, Clyde Space (now AAC Clyde Space).

Other technology partners  include the CSIR, CubeSpace, Denel Spaceteq, Stone Three, Stellenbosch University, Luvhone Engineering and Consultants and Astrofica. DSI is, the statement says, working to “develop Denel’s Overberg Test Range (OTR) in Western Cape as a facility to launch future CubeSats developed by the CPUT”. Earlier this month, researchers and students at the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s Aerospace Systems Research Group successfully launched a hybrid rocket as part of the Phoenix Hybrid Sounding Rocket Programme.

The successful launch saw the rocket travel 17.9 km into the air achieving a new African hybrid rocket altitude record.

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