The launch of a nanosatellite is a big step forward for African space science
South African space science had a big day on January 13, 2022. Cape Peninsula-based Cape Peninsula University of Technology launched its third satellite mission into space from the Cape Canaveral Rocket Launch Site in Florida in the United States.
The constellation of nanosatellites – made up of three satellites – is called MDASat (Marine Domain Awareness). A nanosatellite is smaller than standard satellites, weighing between 1kg and 10kg; it is an affordable and functional option. The average mass of each of our satellites is 2.1 kg.
MDASat is designed to collect data that will improve the security and protection of South Africa’s marine resources. The constellation will detect, monitor and identify foreign vessels in the country’s exclusive economic zone. This could help track illegal dumping and fishing.
Our hope, as the team that developed and designed the constellation – I am the project’s acting chief engineer – is that MDASat will strengthen the country’s ocean sovereignty and protect our marine resources.
This mission follows the successful development, launch and operation of two other nanosatellites: ZACUBE-1, known as TshepisoSat, and ZACUBE-2.
This is an exciting time not only for the institution and for South Africa, but for the African continent more broadly: this is the first constellation of satellites developed and designed in Africa. Other African countries, including Kenya, Morocco, Nigeria and Ghana, have sent satellites into space. But these were not developed and designed on the continent; they involved partnerships with non-African nations or companies.
This is important because the more countries and scientists involved in space, the better: it allows for better collaborations and introduces new technical techniques to process information. Different data can be used for all sorts of purposes, such as tracking space weather and monitoring natural and marine resources.
Role of MDASat
The January 13 launch sent three satellites from the MDA constellation (we hope to launch nine in total as part of this constellation) into space. MDASat-1 will use Automatic Identification System data to monitor vessel movements in South Africa’s Exclusive Economic Zone. The Automatic Identification System is a radio system used for tracking marine traffic. Location messages received by satellites from ships in the ocean below are downloaded daily from the satellite as it passes over the ground station at the university’s campus in Bellville, Cape Town.
Satellites can do a number of things. For example, they can receive over-the-air upgrades, meaning software can be developed and uploaded to the satellite in orbit when it’s ready. They can also collect raw data, improving the possibility of diagnostic tests on signal interference and message decoding. This information allows us to track the health of the satellites – if they encounter software bugs or electronic malfunctions, we can study this information and then apply fixes or backup maneuvers.
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MDASat also has an improved data interface. This means that it uses all available bandwidth so that it performs optimally and can transmit maximum data.
These improvements pave the way for the development and launch of the future MDASat-2. They also minimize the risk of damage to the current payload by space weather conditions.
Each satellite will initially pass through the ground station an average of four times a day, but this will steadily increase. The satellites will recede over time and as they recede we will have an average of 12 passes per day. We expect an average of 1883,000 bytes of data to be generated per pass and per satellite.
At the same time, we are still following the previously launched ZACUBE-2. It also tracks ships, as well as forest and vegetation fires. Since its launch in 2018, ZACube-2 has provided state-of-the-art very high frequency data exchange communications systems to the country’s maritime industry, as a contribution to Operation Phakisa. This government initiative aims to accelerate several priority projects.
Another African Connection
Space engineering projects began at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology in 2008. Today, they are coordinated by the institution’s African Center for Space Innovation.
We work from laboratories close to the institution’s Bellville campus. Our satellites are built to last and stay the course: they undergo a rigorous flight acceptance review that confirms not only that they are fit for space, but that they will perform once they get there. The review includes environmental testing to ensure mechanical shock does not erase satellite and thermal testing to ensure it can operate within designated temperature ranges.
There was another South African element to the January 13 launch: MDASat was launched by SpaceX, the company founded by South African entrepreneur Elon Musk. SpaceX offers affordable ridesharing options in space, and MDASat was just one project launched aboard the aerospace company’s Falcon 9 rocket on the occasion. The rocket was carrying a total of 105 spacecraft which will all gather data for different entities.
This project represents a big step towards empowering South Africa’s precious natural resources: data from and about the country, for its own use.