"In Africa, there’s a space race going on," South African National Space Agency (Sansa) chief Sandile Malinga says.
Now that SA’s SumbandilaSat — a pathfinder satellite — is out of communication, the country has no satellite in space.
However, Nigeria, Algeria and Egypt have two each, and Angola has one.
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"But unlike the others, we built our own satellite," said Dr Malinga, during a briefing on the African Resource Management Constellation (ARMC) on the sidelines of the 62nd International Astronautical Congress in Cape Town this week.
Sansa Space Operations MD Raoul Hodges says: "America, France, Japan, everyone is trying to win the technology game, and it is the same in Africa."
SA’s SumbandilaSat was a pathfinder, not an operational satellite. The country’s first low- orbit satellite was beleaguered by problems during its two-year period in space, finally culminating in power and communication loss.
But SA announced last month that it would start preliminary work on a new satellite this month. It would be part of the ARMC. "We don’t want to build another prototype, we want to build an operational satellite," Dr Malinga says.
The constellation partnership, signed in 2009, includes SA, Algeria, Nigeria and Kenya and aims to put three or more satellites into space.
"The data collected from ARMC will be used for the advancement of Africa in a number of areas including agriculture, climate monitoring, housing, farm settlements, etc."
However, Kenya’s higher education, science and technology secretary, Prof Henry Kaane, says there is more to the project than data collection and resource management.
"No leader in the world has succeeded in development without improving their manufacturing capacity — India, China, Korea," Prof Kaane says.
"We need to use space as an instrument ... to develop (our) industrial and manufacturing sectors, to shift from agro- processing to manufacturing, which will indirectly pull up agriculture."
Nigeria is the only country so far to have launched a satellite as part of the constellation.
"Even though we launched two, the second one is for our own national programme," Nigeria’s National Space Research and Development Agency director-general Dr Seidu Oneilo Mohammed says. The ARMC satellite had to adhere to certain scientific specifications, he says.
The specific conditions and number of satellites were integral to the constellation’s objectives. "One satellite won’t do it," Dr Malinga says.
"It would take about nine months to cover the whole of SA. We need to cover the country in a more rapid manner.
"A constellation, with a satellite from each of the four partner counties, increases our spatial capacity, with more rapid revisit times.... It could take about 1000 images a day."
Moreover, other African countries could join the constellation, even if they did not contribute a satellite.
"Maybe it’s a ground station, personnel, or any other way of participation," Dr Malinga says.
But while all African countries were welcome to join, there was no definitive time frame for the completion of the original constellation.
Dr Malinga says the Nigerian satellite has a seven-year lifespan. "The other partners should come to the party before that."
Additionally, there is no framework for its time and task allocation, Dr Malinga says.
"There is a need for the steering committee to decide....
"At the moment, (we) don’t have that policy. How will data be exchanged? Will it be free? We will have to thrash that out."