Cool cubes are changing the way we play in space

TshepisoSAT, Africa’s first nano-satellite developed by students and staff at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology. CPUT

A tiny cube, slightly smaller than a loaf of bread, is the new manna to heaven, as the number of nano-satellites being hurled into orbit is increasing substantially.

Nano-satellites are small satellites weighing between 1 kg and 10 kg. CubeSats are box-shaped versions of nano-satellites. They are very light compared to the traditional satellites which can weigh anything up to a few tons.

Pretty much in the vein of mobile phone hand-sets, satellites have also become smaller and better. They cost less but have the capability of bigger satellites of the past.

In their short existence nano-satellites have seen a remarkable uptake globally among universities and recent business start-ups. The exciting era of nano-satellites has begun.

Cost effective and nimble

Since 2000, more than 300 CubeSats have been launched, of which American start-up Planet Labs accounts for a third. It is expected that up to 3000 nano- and micro-satellites will be launched over the next 5 years.

While the cost of a big satellite can run into hundreds of millions of dollars, a CubeSat can be built for around a hundred thousand dollars, and launched for much the same, depending on the complexity of the mission.

For this reason, CubeSats were initially used to train students for the aerospace industry. But now these small spacecraft can even be used to track and trace vessels at sea, or aircraft.

Being low cost, multiple nano-satellites can be launched into low Earth orbit. The satellites in these constellations pass over a specific geographic area more frequently than single, big-satellite missions.

This makes it possible for nano-satellites to be used for rapid responses to disasters, or to gather timely information relating to tele-medicine, environmental management and asset tracking. They will soon even reach to other planets.

With so many satellites big and small in orbit there is the possibility (still extremely small) of collision with pieces of used rockets and defunct satellites floating about. But even tiny pieces of space debris are tracked with radar and potential collisions can be predicted and avoided with appropriate technologies.

This has inspired cutting edge research and innovation, for example, to make sure nano-satellites _de-orbit _(return to the atmosphere and burn out) when they reach the end of their lives.

Combined with evolving national and international regulatory frameworks, future generations will continue to benefit from this resource.

Africa’s first cool cube

On 21 November 2013, South Africa made history by becoming the first African country to launch its own CubeSat TshepisoSAT into space.

TshepisoSAT being loaded into its ‘pod’ before launch. CPUT

The satellite was developed by students and staff from the French South African Institute of Technology at CPUT with funding from the Department of Science and Technology and the National Research Foundation.

TshepisoSAT was the first in a series of CubeSats that will study the ionosphere above Africa in collaboration with scientists of the South African National Space Agency, and others on the continent.

The university has also pioneered the International African CubeSat Workshop series, a growing networking forum for colleagues on the continent. The partnership between academia, government and industry together with adopting CubeSats for a hands-on learning experience provide a blueprint for creating similar nodes elsewhere in Africa.

Challenges facing Africa’s space vision

Nano-satellites support the African Union’s science and technology ambitions which it believes could reap massive benefits for the continent.

The African Union Science, Technology and Innovation Strategy for Africa - 2024 (STISA-2024) has six priorities, at the heart of which is the pursuit of space-based applications supported by an indigenous satellite industry. The priorities include putting an end to hunger, bringing about food security and preventing and controlling diseases.

But establishing a sustainable African space industry faces a number of challenges, notably that of funding. Furthermore, young people are generally not rushing to take up careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Capacity building for the space industry is constrained by the high cost of traditional satellites and supporting infrastructure compared to other technologies.

CubeSats are, however, winning over the youth to the space sector. From being cheaper to build and launched to space, they provide a cost-effective platform for training and research, especially for countries where heavy investment in a space industry has to be weighed against more immediate needs such as health and welfare.

Combining the vibrant ingenuity and creativity of this generation with an equally ingenious and cool space technology can no doubt have a profoundly positive socio-economic impact on Africa.

Democratising space

Africa is steadily moving towards a coherent space programme and nano-satellites should be part of this broader strategy. Pan-African constellations of nano-satellites can be developed in partnerships with existing communities of excellence in science, engineering and mathematics on the continent.

By ensuring that Africa produces its own engineers and scientists, and by playing our part on the global stage, the continent will have taken another step towards the democratisation of space for its people.