South Africa's second satellite, SumbandilaSat, is in good hands, thanks to the skills and expertise of the CSIR's Gladys Magagula. Magagula, the first female South African mission control specialist in training, was tasked with taking the overpass of the satellite on 22 February 2010 at the media event hosted by the Minister of Science and Technology, Mrs Naledi Pandor. The event took place at the CSIR Satellite Applications Centre.
Minister of Science and Technology, Mrs Naledi Pandor, with Gladys Magagula in the mission control room at the CSIR Satellite Applications Centre
Gladys's role was to ensure that the media could view live telemetry and a PAL video stream from SumbandilaSat as it passed over the CSIR's Hartebeesthoek receiving station.
Magagula, a University of Stellenbosch (US) graduate, took the event in her stride. "It was another day at work, which required my focused attention," she says. "I was responsible for taking the pass and keeping the minister informed about what was happening."
She is no stranger to the South African space scene. Her postgraduate diploma in engineering and Master's degree in engineering made her an obvious choice for the small group of candidates (nine in total) selected for the SumbandilaSat internship training programme sponsored by the Department of Science and Technology (DST) at Sunspace.
She joined the CSIR team at Hartebeesthoek in December 2009, and has been undergoing further training at Sunspace since then. The mission control system at Hartebeesthoek was set up and tested by the CSIR's Pieter Kotzé, who lectured Magagula during her postgraduate studies at the US.
A day in the life of a mission control specialist
Magagula shares some details of the countdown to the media event on 22 February 2010. "I arrived at the CSIR Satellite Applications Centre on Friday in time for a dry run," she says. "It was very important to know that everything would be working on Monday."
On 22 February the overpass was scheduled for 08:19. The signal received by the VHF/UHF (very high frequency/ultra high frequency) communication unit indicated that the satellite was in a healthy state.
Magagula explains that each overpass is scheduled at varying times of the day (between three and four each day, morning and afternoon) and has either a mission control specialist or an operator assigned to the job. A pass may not be usable if the elevation angle of the satellite is too small to allow a useful period of contact with the satellite. Geographic features such as high mountains may also 'hide' the satellite as it passes over and reduce time of contact.
Guests at the event on 22 February were able to watch the activities as well. A four-way split display revealed firstly the spike on the spectrum analyser (on one quarter of the screen) as contact was made with the satellite. The LSX antenna (also on screen ) was used to track the satellite and download the video stream, and moved from right to left during the overpass. The incoming video stream was clearly visible on another section of the screen.
On a normal day, Magagula would also need to download event logs, telemetry (remote measurement and reporting of information) and data for processing, such as images and files to be checked for housekeeping purposes.
Next steps are always to analyse the data downloaded and take action. "As a mission control specialist, I also have support from the team of engineers at Sunspace, who built the satellite," she says."Faults may need to be reported to the software team or to the ground station equipment team."
In future, the mission control specialists will be tasked to arrange for images of particular places. Magagula says, "The prospect of delivering a service of this nature is very exciting." SumbandilaSat's payloads are the imager (the main payload), the experimental payloads and the AMSAT payload. The latter is used by the amateur radio community; Magagula and her fellow mission control specialists relay signals and upload activities to activate the AMSAT payload.
More about SumbandilaSat
The 81-kg microsatellite, which is about 1 m x 0,5 m in size, lifted off into space on 17 September 2009 from the Baikonur space base after it was integrated into the Russian Soyuz rocket.
The R26-million low-orbit microsatellite is the result of a three-year integrated capacity and satellite development programme commissioned by the Department of Science and Technology (DST) in 2005, and carried out by Stellenbosch University's engineering faculty.
SumbandilaSat will provide South Africa with valuable information that will assist in the effective management of disasters (floods and fires), food security (crop yield estimation), health (prediction of outbreaks), safety and security, water resources and energy security.
The satellite orbits about 500 km to 600 km above the earth. Carrying a high-resolution imager, it is able to produce images to be used for agriculture, mapping of infrastructure and land use, population measurement and the monitoring of dam levels, among other things, and stream this information to the CSIR Satellite Applications Centre at Hartebeesthoek, near Pretoria.
The CSIR carries out the image download by tracking the satellite using a large dish antenna.
SumbandilaSat is set to strengthen South Africa's technological and innovation capability in space science and technology, as well as reinforce the country's role in national, regional and international space initiatives.
About satellite applications
Specific applications have to be developed in order to use the data that will be derived from SumbandilaSat. These applications include, among others, remote sensing air quality, monitoring of surface and ground water, and vegetation specific applications. The DST has invested approximately R3 million to date for the research and development of these applications.
Way forward following the launch
It has to be noted that the launch of SumbandilaSat is primarily intended to be a technology demonstrator. South Africa's space programme was terminated in the early 1990s, as there was a strong link with the nuclear programme, for example, launch vehicles developed for the launch of satellites could also be used for the launch of nuclear warheads.
Not much has since taken place in the domain of satellite development, apart from the launch of a student developed satellite called SunSat in 1999, which failed two years after launch. It was therefore felt necessary for South Africa to demonstrate its space heritage by developing and operating a satellite in orbit. This is necessary as we intend to build a national space programme.
The South African National Space Agency Act is now in place, which mandates the establishment of the South African National Space Agency.
In addition, a National Space Policy ? an instrument of the Department of Trade and Industry, and a National Space Strategy ? an instrument of the DST, were approved in December last year. This implies that all the appropriate instruments for the formalisation of a national space programme are in place.
The policy rational for pursuing a national space programme is to leverage the potential socio-economic benefits from space applications. Three main priority areas to be addressed by the national space programme are:
- Environment and resource management - these include, rural and urban development; ocean, coastal and marine management; land management; and meteorological applications;
- Health, safety and security - which include, disaster mitigation and response; disease surveillance; cross border risks; regulatory enforcements; and peacekeeping missions;
- Innovation and economic growth - which include a focus on tourism; spin-offs from the space sector and industry development.
In order to address these key priorities, South Africa will be looking to develop a number of satellites in the coming future. These satellites will focus on remote sensing, navigation, telecommunications and space exploration. The South African National Space Agency will play an implementing and central coordination role with respect to the national space programme.