One giant leap for South Africa into space science with Nyameko Royi

South Africa took an important step forward this year in space science when the Cape Peninsula University of Technology launched three nanosatellites. Although other African countries have sent satellites into space, these are the first constellation of satellites developed and designed in Africa. They are called MDASat and will be collecting data that will be used to monitor South Africa’s marine resources. The acting chief engineer on the MDASat constellation project, Nyameko Royi, told BizNews that this was a huge milestone for South Africa; that working with SpaceX was “an experience” and of his dream is to visit Nasa or SpaceX. – Linda van Tilburg

It is the first time that SA has a constellation of satellites

Currently, the satellites are in the air and we are stabilising them, and that is kind of the exciting part. If you have one satellite, it is quite easy because you have one target. But right now, we have three and they are separated by a margin of one minute and within that minute, you are trying to capture data from all three of them. It is the first time that we have launched a constellation.

A huge milestone for South Africa

This is quite big for us. The amount of interest we get – from people – in Africa and from the international world – who are supporting us and who are also interested in what we do. I think it is a huge milestone that we have achieved in the last two weeks. We have showcased the huge possibility and technological advancements we have in Africa and Cape Town.

Working with SpaceX is “an experience”

We have launched two satellites previously with the Russians that were with Soyuz. It was easy and the second one was a kind of copy and paste from the previous work. But now, it was a different entity, the requirements changed a little bit [along with] the documentation you have to do. You have to comply and change a little bit as well. It was a challenge and the decision to launch with Space X was very quick because we had to use the earliest opportunity. When that opportunity came, we didn’t expect a lot of differences from Soyuz but there were some major differences that I have noted.

Not many opportunities for space engineers in SA

The interest in physics, astronomy and astrophysics was always there. At that time, I started to wonder what to do with my life, you know. I had an interest in it but engineering was the simplest thing because you are not really clear of what you might do to fulfil that; the market is limited in South African terms. But when I got an engineering opportunity and then the opportunity to become a space engineer, I thought it was something I should pursue. I went on to work for engineering companies in South Africa during my training, but then I got the chance to work in space engineering and it is very interesting.

I did my undergraduate degree in engineering and my postgraduate studies were focused on space engineering because we had to develop communications subsystems for the first mission – the Zacube1 satellite – that was launched in 2013. It was part of my thesis for my master’s. That was when I discovered materials and their uses and how critical it is; learning how to keep stuff in place and getting orbital parameters and the trajectory of the satellites you launch.

Circling just above the International Space Station, and ensuring they don’t become space junk

We are 100 km above the ISS. They circumnavigate the Earth in one hour and 30 minutes and we are doing one hour 35 minutes…  When we look for an orbit and the altitude of the satellite, we always try to keep it around 550 to 600 m at the maximum, so we can make sure it comes back in the next 30 years and will burn up… So, we try to keep them as low as possible so that they don’t stay up there and become space junk. There are mechanisms we can use to speed up the process, for example, changing the spin or influencing more drag to slow it down. The re-entry process is quicker.

Gathering data to protect our economic marine zone

We are expecting the first batch of data within the next month. At the end of February, we start commissioning the payloads. Right now, the main thing is to get the stabilisation so we can complete that part of the mission. Then we will turn on the payload, commission them and show our stakeholders what is happening and we can get the data they commissioned us to gather for them.

There are quite a lot of resources in our coastal economic zones. A typical example is fishing. There are South African boats that are not licensed to fish but they are still doing it because nobody is really [monitoring] it. If a person goes over 200 km from land, we cannot read their signal with a terrestrial radio. With the satellite, you can see if the boat is 500 km away and the Navy or Coast Guard can go out and find out why it is there or why it is in the economic zone.

Dreaming of visiting Nasa or SpaceX

It will be lovely to have that tour at some point. If it wasn’t for Covid-19, I probably would have had the opportunity already. Not everybody gets the chance to go to Florida. If it ever presents itself [in the future], it will be very exciting.

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