South Africa joins NASA to explore the Moon, Mars and beyond

The South African National Space Agency (SANSA) has entered into a partnership with the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to host a Deep Space Ground Station. The station, which will be based in Matjiesfontein in the Western Cape, will support human spaceflight missions to the Moon, Mars and beyond. SANSA Managing Director, Raoul Hodges spoke to Biznews from the Hartbeesthoek Radio Astronomy Observatory and said SANSA was “over the moon” about the prospect of working with NASA again. – Linda van Tilburg

We’ve been talking about it for quite a while. It is now getting to a point where we are trying to find a suitable place to build this ground station in the study agreement to see that we can effectively meet all the criteria in South Africa and then a decision will be made whether we go ahead and establish such a ground station.

So, where are you thinking of building it?

We’re looking in the Matjiesfontein area near Laingsburg and the reason is; it is suited because of the frequency issues.

Okay. And what exactly would South Africa’s involvement be?

Well, South Africa has been involved in the space industry for around about 60 years. And you must remember that NASA was part of the South African space history which started in 1958 all the way to 1976 when NASA withdrew from South Africa. So for us, to be able to once again go into partnership or have study agreement with NASA for such a prospect, is huge. What will we do? Well, we have unique skills in South Africa for establishing such ground stations. I mean Hartebeesthoek presently has about 48 antennas. So we have got the skills to operate, maintain and manage such ground stations.

In this whole quest of deep space, we’re all thinking Elon Musk, but it’s not for him; it’s a NASA project?

You must remember in the space industry that people don’t do things alone; it’s too expensive. Take the space station for instance; their commercial company is busy launching astronauts to the space station on behalf of NASA. So, NASA will partner with a lot of private sector industries to achieve a goal at the end of the day.

Photo Credit: The South African National Space Agency.

What’s unique about South Africa? Are we in the right geographical space or place to monitor?

What’s unique about South Africa is location; it’s where you are situated in the world at the southern tip of Africa. So that gives us an advantage; the climate in the area where we are doing the study agreement or the study for NASA is very suited for the frequency that is proposed for this and then we have the skills and we have the knowledge.

What benefit will the country get from its involvement in this project?

It’s about the prestige. First of all to be in the international world space race, which we are part of. The second part is the development of the industry and once you start bringing this type of technology into a country; it fosters people to want to learn the industry, build satellites, build down segments and that type of stuff. So, it creates the opportunity for industry to get involved long term. It fosters that knowledge in a country like South Africa.

And what are the time scales; are we talking way into the future, 10 to 20 years? How soon is this all going to happen?

We hope to complete the study agreement, most probably by the end of this year. And then if all goes well and we can get to consensus; I believe we’re looking at 2023.

In the meantime South Africa would have to build a lot of infrastructure for it?

It will be a mutual partnership. South Africa will most probably put the first phase of the infrastructure down and together with NASA decide on the second phase of the infrastructure that’s needed.

Linda van Tilburg at the NASA space centre in Houston, Texas.

I have recently been to the NASA space centre in Houston, Texas and there was already a control room for Mars exploration. They are certainly looking far into the future.

It’s all planning; when you deal with space matters and you deal with satellites; you have to think 20 to 25 years ahead. Some of these satellites and probes last 15 or 20 years. It takes some of them nine years to get to the planet which you are trying to get to. So, space is a long term, very long-term planning, very long term strategy, long term thinking and long term cost.

And to get to the moon; is that a bit quicker?

Well, the moon is not that far but when you start thinking of going to Mars; you have to start thinking well ahead; it’s nine months to get there.

And what do you need to build at Matjiesfontein?

Effectively, the study agreement is looking at putting up a ground station. So somehow whatever you put on the moon and on Mars; you want to talk to; you want to have communications, you want data like WiFi. You want instantaneous data because you want to speak to or send data to whatever is on the moon or Mars or the probe going there, or the rocket going there. So effectively, you need antennas on the ground to be able to communicate with that infrastructure.

You must be glad that these negotiations paid off?

You know, we’re ecstatic. As I said, my phone has exploded since this morning. Yes, we are over the moon about it; pardon the pun. But to us, it’s an honour and prestige to be able to be do a study agreement with NASA.

It feels like we’re back.

We’ve been here all along. We’ve never gone away.

The Mission Control Center at the NASA space centre.

Are you working right through the Covid-19 lockdown. Are you an essential service?

Yes. The space agency is an essential service because a lot of satellites are managed and maintained from the ground station and a lot of your information regarding zoning and areas, and the data coming from the satellites is used by the disaster management effect in South Africa. So yes, the data comes from here and is extracted here and is processed, and that information then goes to the disaster management team which uses that data to effectively manage the Covid-19 pandemic.

Where would the other ground stations be? South Africa has been chosen because it’s at the tip of Africa; a very strategic point. Where would the others be?

The others are there already. So, Goldstone for instance in the US (Mojave desert) is one of them. I’m not exactly sure about the others they are talking about. But yes, Goldstone is one of them and potentially South Africa could be the next.