Over the past decades, great strides were taken in space exploration advancements such as, the discovery by NASA of Kepler-452b, an exoplanet that is similar to earth and which shows potential to be habitable. This new decade promises ground-breaking prospects in the space industry. Virgin Galactic has announced plans to complete construction on their space planes and to begin test launches in 2020. SpaceX has been working on the “Crew Dragon” space shuttle over the past few years and the first crewed test flight is currently scheduled to take place during the first quarter of 2020. In 2020, NASA, China, the United Arab Emirates, and the European Space Agency in collaboration with Rocosmos will make efforts to send rovers to Mars in July.

While African countries, including South Africa, are not preparing to send rovers into space any time soon, the region has been expanding the space industry at a rapid rate. According to the African Space Industry Annual Report for 2019, the African space industry is now generating more than $7 billion annually and will likely exceed $10 billion by 2024. Some of the countries that have established space programmes are Nigeria, Egypt, Kenya and Ethiopia.

“Virgin Galactic has announced plans to complete construction on their space planes and to begin test launches in 2020.”

The South African Space Agency (SANSA) was established in 2010 and is responsible for all the space activities in the country. SANSA has worked to advance and grow the space industry and is considered one of the most advanced agencies on the continent. SANSA fosters research in space science and supports development in space technology. In December 2018, the agency was responsible for the launch of the ZACube-2 Satellite. According to the authority on news, data and market analysis for the African space industry, Space in Africa, the ZACube-2 Satellite is the most advanced nanosatellite in Africa.

Within the broad field of astronomy, South Africa is extensively involved in deep space exploration. The MeerKat, a telescope launched in 2018 in the Northern Cape, is one of the most powerful radio telescopes in the world. The National Research Foundation has described it as the best radio telescope of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere. The telescope recently captured the first image of distant galaxies and will help researchers to learn more about the formation of the universe. The Square Kilometre Array is another major project on the horizon. It will be the largest telescope in history built through collaboration with other African countries and Australia. Most space projects in South Africa are pursued with the objective of contributing to the country’s development in areas such as disaster management and environmental management.

PDBY spoke to Roger Deane, an astrophysicist and associate professor specialising in radio astronomy at the University of Pretoria. He is positive about the current and future astronomical endeavours in South Africa. He was part of the team of over 200 scientists that worked together to capture the ground-breaking and first black-hole image using the Event Horizon Telescope. The image was released on 10 April 2019. According to a 2019 study titled “Awareness of the Space Industry as a Career Opportunity in South Africa”, very few students see the space industry as a viable career path due to little awareness about the study and work opportunities available. Professor Deane explained that South Africa has a high potential and capability in the industry which can be realised once more young people are aware of the space-related study and work opportunities available in the country.

“…the ZACube-2 Satellite is the most advanced nanosatellite in Africa.”

He noted that space science in South Africa has grown considerably, with an increasing number of programmes at universities and funding for postgraduate studies. The increase in investment by the government is also one of the biggest developments that he sees in the industry today. When asked why pursuing research in astronomy is important, especially with the heavy financial cost, he explained that it is crucial to keep up with the rest of the world in advancing science and technology. Not doing so would mean that South Africa would regress in development. “If we don’t go forward, we go back,” he said, adding that astronomy research can lead to other scientific developments like how expertise in radio astronomy led to the development of Wi-Fi today. Professor Deane is establishing an astronomy group at the University of Pretoria and would like to see South Africa play a larger role in producing world-class science in 2020 and beyond.

South Africa shows no signs of slowing down in the rapidly growing space industry in this decade. This year the SpaceOps Conference and Exhibition will be held in Cape Town from 18 to 20 May. Experts, academics and enthusiasts in the space industry from all over the world will convene to discuss and exchange ideas on activities in the space economy. This will be the first time that the event will be hosted in Africa.

Feliciana Nezingu

Image: Cletus Mulaudi