SumbandilaSat gives 500% ROI

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For every R1 invested in the SumbandilaSat programme, there has been a R6 return, says the Department of Science and Technology (DST).

Speaking at a Parliamentary Portfolio Committee meeting, Val Munsami, deputy DG of research development and innovation at the DST, said SA's second national satellite does have its problems but is still functioning.

When questions about the economic viability of SA's space future and its value arose, Munsami said there had been a R6 return for every R1 spent on the SumbandilaSat programme.

Not quite cash

However, Raoul Hodges, centre manager at the Satellite Application Centre (SAC), says this is not a monetary value.

The SumbandilaSat programme has been transferred to the SAC, which will form part of the SA National Space Agency as of 1 April.

Hodges says Munsami's indication of return on investment from the programme is not a cash value, but it's about the value for the social benefit of the country, considering the people involved, knowledge obtained and human capital investments.

“You can't really put a value to a picture. It's the value taken from the picture in its use for disaster management, roads and transport. It's not a physical, cash value.”

Munsami also explained that many of the technologies on the SumbandilaSat were in use on satellites in orbit.

“And much of the South African skill-set was second to none when it came to satellite construction. So there was an economic return on this.”

In response to a parliamentary question about the return on investment to the government for the costs associated with the SumbandilaSat, the DST said since the satellite is a technology demonstrator, the return on investment is in the form of human capital development in space science engineering; intellectual property and experience; and international cooperation in the field of space science and technology.

Space value

Munsami also said he could not overemphasis the importance of a well functioning space infrastructure.

“It touched almost every aspect of our daily lives, from GPS, television, telecommunication, banking, time coding, healthcare information, even cellular phones. All came via space technology and satellites.”

Both the South African satellites that had been developed had been attached to post-graduate programmes, and there had emerged a number of Master and PhD students from them, adding to human capital development.

The department assured the committee of the necessity of having a space industry as it would pay off in economic and technological returns.

It also said it would free them from a reliance on foreign powers, but most importantly they would get to use the skills foundation for satellite technology that already existed in the country.

Sunspace justification

The department used a similar justification for its intention to invest in the space industry.

Cabinet recently approved a controversial majority equity stake acquisition in microsatellite company Sunspace of between 55% and 60% by government.

Sunspace developed SumbandilaSat, and needs to lean on government to fill its order books, at an estimated cost of R100 million.

Democratic Alliance shadow minister of science and technology Marian Shinn asked why, with SA's huge developmental issues, it would need to invest in a space industry. She also queried whether it's necessary for SA to build and launch its own space vehicles when it could buy the images from abroad.

Munsami said a good reason for SA to have its own satellites was that it currently had to pay a large amount to get access to satellite imagery, and that was capital flowing out of the country.

He said if the capital was retained, it could build up the industrial capability in the country.

“There were certain restrictions when you licensed the use of foreign satellites. It was first of all very difficult and very expensive to get high resolution imagery. Large-scale resolution images could be obtained free of charge from China, Brazil or the US. However, when you need smaller resolution, for say, special planning or military application, the problem of access and high costs emerged.”

Munsami said another issue was autonomy, where when SA used foreign satellites it could risk having to wait up to two or three weeks to get it to the point it wanted it at, while if SA owned its own satellite it could happen immediately.

“In situations such as disasters where time was of the essence, this suddenly became important.”

He also said the DST is looking to develop a cost-effective satellite system consisting of micro and nano satellites, not a large one like America possesses.

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