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It’s lift-off time – finally – for South Africa’s new cube satellites

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Dr Michael Kahn is Extraordinary Professor in the Centre for Research on Evaluation, Science and Technology at Stellenbosch University, and a member of the DST-NRF Centre of Excellence in Scientometrics and Science Policy.

Minister of Communications and Digital Technologies Khumbudzo Ntshavheni announced the development of three nano-cube satellites. These were launched by Elon Musk’s SpaceX at 5.25pm on 13 January 2022 from Cape Canaveral as part of our planned low-Earth observation system. A great idea, but very late in coming. The Falcon 9 rocket payload was made up of 105 items: cube sats, and other sats, one of which was the size of a washing machine. Here’s to you, Pretoria boykie Elon!

Back in 2009, the government sought my informal advice on two matters that were of concern to the Ministry of Science and Technology: how to increase spending on research and development (R&D), and what to do about the department’s request to fund a micro-satellite. My advice? At that time, spending on R&D was at an all-time high of 0.92% of GDP. To persuade Cabinet to push more government funds toward R&D, my tongue-in-cheek advice was: “Ask ministers what they had for breakfast.” Why? Because all the goodies on their plates, the animal breeds and plant cultivars, have been informed by agricultural R&D. Such investment has long-term economic and social benefits. Maybe this will encourage them.

As to the satellite, my advice was NO!

“Really, why?” “The ministry should fund 20 satellites, to build a low-Earth network over the whole country, that will monitor the environment, coastline, poaching, plant diseases and fire. Not one, but many, and thereby build an industry.”

And here we are, with R&D spending at a 30-year low. Science and Technology Minister Blade Nzimande has laid out a plan to build and position nine nano-cube satellites in orbit. As stated, one should be pleased, as we shall be halfway toward the thumb-suck target of 20 boxes. One should also congratulate the staff and students at Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT), who have worked with French counterparts to design, build and test the boxes. And the industry? This would involve ballistic missiles, control systems, and the boxes themselves. 

Some history is called for. Before 1994 Armscor and Denel were on the verge of operational capability in ballistic missile technology. This was curtailed under US pressure, and Denel R&D later withered away as a consequence of the 1999 Arms Deal and later capture of the organisation. Acquiring our own launch capability would appear to be in the distant future, so that part of the industry is off-limits.    

South Africa’s satellite programme gestated at Stellenbosch University’s Department of Electrical Engineering in the late 1980s, culminating in the design and successful launch of microsatellite SunSat atop a Delta II rocket out of Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The design and build capacity was located in Sunspace under Garth Milne, whose team went on to design and commission a second microsatellite, Sumbandila, launched from Kazakhstan in late 2009. By then Milne had passed away, Sunspace had run into financial troubles, and the company subsequently failed. But the department had served as a training ground for other entrepreneurial graduates, who in turn established companies such as EMSS Antennas, Alphawave and Dragonfly that are active in the design and sale of cutting-edge antennas, detectors, cameras and control equipment. SunSat and Sumbandila are now defunct.

The satellite programme re-emerged at CPUT, whose electrical engineering staff had experience in radar work and had collaborated with UCT and Stellenbosch University. CPUT also has a long-standing relationship with Université de Paris-Est Créteil through the French South African Institute of Technology. So far so good. 

Much of the evidence of academic collaboration is found by looking at co-authored journal publications. With whom have CPUT academics published in the category of electronic and electrical engineering over the past decade? The answer is, not many. Of 195 articles, 10 were with UCT, six with Stellenbosch, five with the University of Johannesburg and four apiece with EMSS Antennas and the University of the Western Cape. This might imply that the development work has not been published, or that it is deemed unwise to publish. Be that as it may, the full list of co-authors kicks up but three articles spread across three French institutions. This does not speak to major cooperation locally or internationally.

How to interpret? For a start, CPUT has performed well in developing the boxes. But, and this is a large but, the effort does not qualify as the kind of mission-oriented project that presidential economic adviser Mariana Mazzucato is recommending the government invests in. The CPUT project may be mission-oriented, but with a nano “m”. 

Implications? In the BRICS context (and don’t forget Malaysia and the UAE), South Africa’s investment in R&D is now dismal. The reasons for the decline are many. Low business confidence, the destruction of R&D performers such as Eskom and Denel, loss of skills through emigration, the refusal to open up immigration to the highly skilled, as well as Covid-19 and some bad calls. This does not mean that we are at a loss for innovative activity, since R&D is but one among many such activities. What it does mean is that we have reached a crisis point that requires very careful selection of what to fund, and how much to push in. This is a matter that has been neatly sidestepped.

As an aside, we missed the photovoltaic and wind energy boats completely, and were ill-advised to attempt the pebble-bed nuclear reactor. The road to technological hell is paved with competing interests.

If there is an economic, social, environmental, technological and political case to be made for a satellite industry, then evaluate the case, and if the case is solid, back it. 

For now, well done, CPUT and the Department of Science and Innovation. Your R20-million investment has gone a long way. One wonders if there is such a thing as a free launch?

Don’t look up. Nano-cube satellites are unlikely to be visible at night. DM

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  • And then there was Optimal Energy and their electric cars. In many ways ahead of the world, but, again we got to a point where someone had to put down more serious money/commitment and government chickened out. We’re dreadful at commercialisation even the good tech we have 🙁

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