Stellenbosch aerospace co is blazing a satellite trail for SA in space

South Africa is known for exporting raw minerals, fruit and wine, but what is probably not that well-known is that it has a thriving space industry that supplies satellite components and services globally. South African space products are incorporated into a multitude of international satellites.  Exports generated by the country’s space industry amounted to around R200 million in 2022. Stellenbosch space technology solutions provider, Dragonfly Aerospace is building on that history and has provided ‘eyes in the sky’ for several missions in space. CEO and Founder of Dragonfly Aerospace, Bryan Dean told BizNews that the company’s technology has been built on the technology that has been developed in Stellenbosch since the 90s. Dragonfly Aerospace has a camera that has been flown to an asteroid and in January 2023, they launched the first of a seven-satellite constellation in low earth, called the EOS SAT-1 from Cape Canaveral on a Space X rocket to monitor agriculture.  – Linda van Tilburg 

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Building high-performance cameras for space

We build cameras for space, you know, from quite small cameras about the size of your fist up to big cameras, the size of a big fridge. So, you know, quite a range of performance that you get from these different cameras. And then obviously, size complexity, and price increases as you go up as well. So a range of different customers around the world buy our products. Yeah. I mean, in general, these are high-performance instruments, you know, so akin to astronomy telescopes, you know, large mirrors. They’re mirror-based reflecting telescopes with sensing electronics at the back of them. We fly these in space at seven kilometres a second, flying around the world. A satellite orbits the earth in about 90 minutes, flying at seven kilometres a second. So, these cameras don’t work like a snapshot camera that you might have on your phone or you may have had a point-and-click in the past where you take a snapshot. These work a lot more like a scanner. So, you take a line of pixels and then you scan that across the surface of the earth as you fly. 

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From flying a camera to an asteroid to launching a satellite from Cape Canaveral on a Space X rocket

That was a major step for us. I mean, we’ve sold lots of cameras and we’ve got a lot of cameras flying in orbits already. I mean, we got a camera that’s flown to an asteroid. There was a NASA dart mission, which was quite big in the media a few months ago. It was a collaborative South African affair because a South African large telescope in Sutherland imaged the asteroid impact at the same time as our camera flying 1 million kilometres from Earth was imaging it from a little satellite. So, we’ve had lots of really exciting missions in space before. But, in all of these cases we were delivering the camera to our customer who was building the satellite, who was constructing the mission, defining what the application was and building a system that would perform that application. But in the case of the satellite that we launched in January, the whole thing was our creation. Again, we had a customer who was looking for agricultural monitoring, but we built a system that was optimised to achieve that goal. It was a big system, 180 kilograms satellites, two large cameras, each one with an aperture of 250 millimetres and a metre long camera, two of those side-by-side to give you a wide swath because this is an enormous area, a large area of crop in the world and you want to be covering this regularly to be able to serve as many customers as possible.

The whole thing was integrated in Stellenbosch and then shipped from our facility here to the United States from where it went to Cape Canaveral and launched on a SpaceX Falcon Nine, which was quite exciting because I was there for the launch and the rocket landed again after launching our satellite into space. 

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South Africa’s satellite industry is a Stellenbosch story 

The heart of all satellite engineering in South Africa is in Stellenbosch. This is a satellite program that was developed in the late eighties, and early nineties, which was developed by Armscor at the time. So, that was a government program. The satellite for that program was called GreenSat, it was developed quite far, but it was never launched. South Africa was developing a launch vehicle at the same time, a rocket. The Overberg test range was the launch site. So, in the late eighties, and early nineties this plan was in place. You know it didn’t get completed but a lot of the skills that are being used today were developed in that first program. Naturally, that first program is quite closely tied to Stellenbosch University and that’s really where the heart of all of space business in South Africa comes from now. So, there are quite a few space companies in South Africa now, around about ten or so. They’re all in some way or other offshoots from either Stellenbosch University directly or Stellenbosch University launched a satellite in 1999 called SunSet, which was built by students. It was really an amazing achievement because it was quite a high-performance satellite with 64 kilograms and it was subsequently recognised to be the best satellite of its class at that time in the world.

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A dream of heavy industry in space and earth as a nature reserve

The asteroid belt is something that we see as a future benefit to Earth, where we can use resources from the wider solar system, not just resources from Earth. My dream would be that all heavy industry is in space and the earth is more like a nature reserve. That would be an ideal outcome for me. But whether or not it’s possible in our life on time or at all, really remains to be seen. But it’s certainly a nice future if we can think of the Earth being a nature reserve.