SANSA Lift-off: Collaboration with NASA to reunite humans with the Moon – Raoul Hodges

The South African National Space Agency (SANSA) is going to play an important role in collaborating with NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, in their quest to reintroduce humans to the lunar surface. Construction is about to commence on a communication facility in Matjiesfontein. SANSA’s Managing Director, Raoul Hodges, from the Astronomy Observatory, delved into the details of this collaboration in an interview with BizNews. He said it marked an exciting milestone for South Africa’s contribution to space exploration. NASA recognised the technology, skills, and reputation of the country in providing and operating a ground station to support its Artemis program.- Linda van Tilburg

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Excerpts from the interview

Negotiations with NASA started in 2014

“Well, it has quite a long background. We started negotiating in 2014 with NASA to find an appropriate site in South Africa to establish a ground station. When setting up ground stations for specific uses, such as deep space communication, the environment is key, and there are a few factors that we needed to consider in the search for such a location. First, you need a dry arid area; it should be relatively close to an airport, a harbour, fibre optics, and power sources. We began searching for a site, and then NASA contracted us in 2019 to find such a location. Matjiesfontein emerged as the top choice as we conducted our study. The reason for having a ground station in the southern hemisphere is to enable 24-hour observation of the moon from both the Northern and Southern hemispheres. The arid area of Matjiesfontein makes it very suitable for such communication with the moon for the intended Artemis program.”

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Getting the site ready for 2025

“We have very strict deadlines, and we are already in the process. We have completed the environmental impact assessment and signed many of the contracts. We have also started some prerequisites for the construction, such as the hydrology survey and soil sampling. Additionally, we are in the process of drawing up plans for the site and have already laid it out. Our goal is to be very close to completion by March 2025, in preparation for the Artemis III launch.”

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NASA’s Artemis: The moon and then a leap to Mars

“Artemis is a worldwide collaboration project initiated by NASA. They aim to return to the moon, land humans on its surface, and then proceed to Mars. The ultimate goal is Mars. Going back to the moon allows us to utilize the knowledge gained during the 1960s Apollo missions, including building rockets, landing on the moon, and facilitating human exploration and walking on its surface. The Artemis program includes three planned launches: Artemis 1, Artemis 2, and Artemis 3. Artemis 1 successfully launched and rendezvoused around the moon before returning. Artemis 2 will also go to the moon without humans, while Artemis 3 will involve landing humans on the moon, allowing them to physically walk on its surface before returning. Many other launches related to Artemis will involve equipment and probes going to the moon. The initial objective is to establish a communication hub around the moon, enabling constant communication with probes, humans, and other entities present on the moon. Ultimately, the plan is to have a sustained human presence on the moon, followed by a journey to Mars.”

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Matjiesfontein: Key to the success of Artemis

“We must remember that South African space history began in the late 1950s and continued until 1963. During this time, we were involved at Hartebeesthoek, where I am currently located, in the NASA program. This involvement brought technological advancements to South Africa due to its location in the Southern Hemisphere. South Africa, along with Australia and South America, situated in the Southern Hemisphere, played a vital role in monitoring probes heading to the moon. South Africa started its journey in 1962 with the construction of a site at Hartebeesthoek. Unfortunately, in 1975, due to funding challenges, the site was closed down. However, the need for a suitable location remains crucial, and South Africa’s technology, skills, and knowledgeable workforce make it a key partner in the Artemis program. The experience and expertise gained from the past make it easier for us to build another site, similar to Hartebeesthoek, and Matjiesfontein will likely serve as a backup station for Hartebeesthoek, increasing its accessibility to the international market.”

South Africa’s space program is something that South Africans can take great pride in. Over the past 50 years, they have excelled and kept up with technological advancements. South Africa has the necessary technology, equipment, and skills when it comes to ground stations. If they continue to maintain and develop their capabilities, they can play a significant role in the market and secure their fair share of opportunities.

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