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SumbandilaSat limits research

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University research was part of the original motivation for the SumbandilaSat, but only one out of three projects was able to utilise the satellite.

In response to a Parliamentary question, science and technology minister Naledi Pandor said the satellite was designed to carry three primary payloads and three experimental payloads, which were to enable students at South African universities to carry out research.

The three experimental payloads were a Stellenbosch University architectural radiation experiment for commercial off-the-shelf-devices (ARCOTS); a Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University forced vibrating string experiment; and a University of KwaZulu-Natal very low frequency radio experiment.

Physical limitations

“However, due to the delays with the launch of SumbandilaSat, only one of these experimental research payloads, ARCOTS, has been used to obtain data for research purposes,” said Pandor.

She added that students were able to mitigate the launch delay by using alternative data sources for the remaining two experiments.

The minister also clarified that all payloads are operational. “However, due to the tumbling effect of the satellite and its current battery capacity, priority has been given to SumbandilaSat's multi-spectral imager, its main payload.”

She said it is due to the physical condition of the satellite that the payloads for the two remaining experiments have not been turned on and this situation will probably last until the end of the satellite's life.

The Department of Science and Technology (DST) previously said the satellite is limping along through space, but is still functioning. It constantly tumbles instead of pointing towards earth.

Narrow benefit

“It's sad that the university experiments - that were part of the original motivation for using taxpayers' money to build SumbandilaSat - have been so severely compromised by the launch delays and operational difficulties of this satellite,” says Democratic Alliance shadow minister of science and technology Marian Shinn.

Pandor said Sunspace, a company that was spun out of research efforts at Stellenbosch University, designed the satellite from scratch, developed all the subsystems and performed all environmental and functional testing. “This was done in record time and within budget.”

She added that Sunspace took in 12 engineering trainees and trained them on the key aspects of satellite engineering, which included practical experience during the building of the satellite.

“While the 'value' of the satellite as an educational and skills building tool is much punted by the DST, these benefits seem to be confined to those associated or involved with design and building of SumbandilaSat, and not the wider academic community,” said Shinn.

SA success

Speaking at the SumbandilaSat commemorative stamp issue last week, Pandor said the stamp series is an acknowledgement of SA's achievement with the manufacture and launch of its own satellite.

“It is a remarkable home-grown innovation story, from the development of local technologies, to the development of competencies in satellite mission controls.”

As of 1 April, the satellite had been orbiting for one year and 192 days, and had completed 8 480 orbits.

Since the receipt of the first image on 17 September 2009, 1 392 images taken by SumbandilaSat have been downloaded, added the minister.

“The commemorative stamp that we are launching here is a testimony to the success of SumbandilaSat. Through the continued use of its images, it is also a demonstration of the value of science and technology to society.”

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