Aerospace industry thriving in Somerset West

The satellite has a life expectancy of 12 to 18 months, during which time the science payload will transmit its data back to earth and the camera will be thoroughly tested.

A groundbreaking aerospace initiative in the heart of Somerset West will see a privately funded micro-satellite, designed and assembled in record time, launched into orbit from the international space station early next year.

NewSpace Systems, a member of the SCS Aerospace Group, located at The Interchange in Somerset West, started the project in April this year, and in record time constructed the micro-satellite, which includes a science payload and a sophisticated imaging system designed and assembled by SCS scientists and engineers, which can produce full-color images of the earth’s surface at a resolution of 30 metres.

Bolander spoke to SCS chief executive officer Hendrik Burger, at the recent public unveiling of the micro-satellite.

“Another institution which had worked on the project for about two and a half years, withdrew, and we were given the opportunity to participate at short notice,” he said. “We got busy on April 1, so we had just six months from the start to design and build the satellite.”

The project is part of QB50, a European programme for facilitating access to space for small scale research space missions and planetary exploration.

Fifty satellites, constructed by mostly educational institutions around the world, will be launched from the international space station early next year.

The common factor in each of the 50 satellites, is the science payload, a sensing system which will measure atmospheric flux – in this instance atomic oxygen – at altitudes of between 200km and 300km above the earth.

“Previously, single samples have been taken but this project will allow for 50 simultaneous samples to be taken around the earth, which will aid the science world in better understanding the atmosphere and modeling of weather systems,” said Mr Burger.

CubeSats, or nano satellites, measure 10cm x 10cm x 10cm, with a payload of the order of one kilogram, and are relatively inexpensive in comparison with conventional satellite technology.

The QB50 project consists of satellites made up of two (2u) or three (3u) such units depending upon the application.

The SCS CubeSat is in 2u configuration, and cost between R6 and R8 million to construct, according to Mr Burger.

“The science payload was provided by the QB50 project, and amounts to about five percent of the total cost of the satellite,” said Mr Burger.

“The balance is entirely privately funded. This is the first totally privately funded satellite in South Africa, and possibly in Africa as well. This proves that the space industry in South Africa is growing, and that it is also willing to do so as a privately funded, commercial initiative rather than as has happened historically in the world, through governments,” he said.

“The satellite was assembled here in NewSpace’s facilities which are, in a sense, unique since they have a clean room available, which complements the rest of the SCS Aerospace Group’s capabilities in terms of knowledge and people.

“In the last week, the satellite has undergone environmental tests – vacuum testing and thermal testing – in preparation for its deployment,” he explained.

The satellite has a life expectancy of 12 to 18 months, during which time the science payload will transmit its data back to earth and the camera will be thoroughly tested.

The SCS systems engineer for the project, Lourens Visagie, flew to The Netherlands on the Sunday following the unveiling of the satellite, hand-carrying it for the next phase of the project.

“The satellite will be packaged – along with three others – into a QuadPack, essentially a collection of four tubes, which will then be shipped to America for integration into the capsule that gets sent to the international space station. Each tube has a door and a spring. The tubes are extended by robot arm, the door opens, and the satellite is ejected into space,” Mr Visagie said.

“Once in orbit, the satellite will be monitored and controlled from the SCS ground station at Houteq in Grabouw,” he said. “Prior to working for SCS, I worked at the University of Surrey, where I was involved in the development of the attitude control module used in the satellite.

“This attitude control module allows us to control the orientation of the satellite, so that the camera will look at the earth, while the science sensor points in the direction of flight of the satellite.”

“Aside from the science payload, the payoff for us is the camera developed by our company, which we want to market into the international space world.

“One of the enablers for selling it, is space heritage – time in space – which proves that it has been flown successfully and that it has survived for a number of months in space. In other words, actual time in space and proof of concept.

“Once we have that, we have a product which can be marketed successfully into the international aerospace sector,” Mr Burger said. ­