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Wednesday, 31 March 2021

CPUT rewrites record books

MOMENTOUS MILESTONE:  Three flight models of the MDASat-1 mission in the CPUT clean room. MOMENTOUS MILESTONE: Three flight models of the MDASat-1 mission in the CPUT clean room.

The team at the Africa Space Innovation Centre (ASIC) at CPUT has completed the integration of the three flight model (FM) satellites for the upcoming MDASat-1 mission.

ASIC Chief Engineer at French South African Institute of Technology (F’SATI), Francois Visser says MDASat-1 consists of three satellites that will be launched simultaneously into space.  “This will relay location beacons and other short messages via radio waves from ships on the ocean below the satellite to CPUT's ground station at its Bellville campus,” Visser explains. The project had received about R20 million in funding from the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI).

“The team put in extra time to complete this momentous milestone a few days before the DSI's end-of-March deadline.  The occasion is also significant for the fact that this marks the first time in South Africa (SA) that three satellites are built at the same time.”

The next step in the project is the functional testing of the three satellites, including environmental testing that will ensure that they survive the rocket launch and harsh space environments.  The launch is scheduled for the fourth quarter of 2021.

Furthermore, DSI recently announced an additional investment of about R18,9 million in the development of two nanosatellites (M2MSat-1) towards increased maritime domain awareness in SA.  Head of the ASIC, as well as the local node of F’SATI at CPUT, Prof Robert van Zyl says the M2MSat-1 will build on the technology of MDASat-1.  

In their recent statement, DSI announced that the funding was channelled through the Technology Innovation Agency (TIA), an entity of the DSI, to CPUT, “an institution that is playing a leading role in growing space science and technology in SA.” The university has developed cutting-edge nanosatellites and cube satellites (CubeSats) over the years, demonstrating advanced technological capabilities in the country's space industry.

The department stated that SA needed a more strategic and coordinated approach to ensure optimal surveillance of the waters off its coast, including shipping movements within the country's exclusive economic zone. This will promote improved maritime domain awareness and enhanced maritime security. It is the first such initiative for the country to provide communication services to the maritime industry.

The two maritime industry nanosatellites will be powered by "M2MSat" technology, in the form of cutting-edge VHD Data Exchange System (VDES) software-defined radios for machine-to-machine (M2M) communication.

Developed as a collaboration between CPUT and a local company, Stone Three Communications, the M2MSat technology advances the state of the art in space innovation, significantly improving the technology on board CPUT's ZACube-2 nanosatellite, which was launched in 2018.

ASIC has produced two satellites that were launched successfully in 2013 and 2018 respectively. The next mission – the most advanced yet – will see the three MDASat-1 nanosatellites placed in orbit for the purpose of maritime domain awareness, in line with the goals of the government's Operation Phakisa: Oceans Economy.

Written by Aphiwe Boyce