Local is lekker: Exciting times for SA space industry – Why MDASat matters

South Africa celebrated a milestone on 13 January 2022, when the Maritime Domain Awareness Satellite constellation (MDASat-1) was launched into space from Cape Canaveral in the United States.

SpaceX launched three South African nanosatellites onboard a Falcon 9 rocket, thus cementing SA’s position as an African leader in small satellite development.

A first for South Africa

At the time, the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI) described the launch as a “first for South Africa’s space industry”.

Why? Because the MDASat-1 – consisting of cube satellites that will detect, identify and monitor vessels in near real-time – was developed entirely in Africa.

Engineering Qualification Model (EQM) of MDASat-1 being tested after environmental tests have been performed Photo: CPUT.

Other African countries – Kenya, Morocco, Nigeria and Ghana – have sent satellites into space, but those were not developed and designed in Africa.

What is the MDASat-1 constellation?

MDASat-1 is the second phase of Operation Phakisa, an initiative focusing on South Africa’s Oceans Economy. The first phase of Operation Phakisa was launched in 2018.

The MDA constellation is equipped with an improved automatic identification system (AIS) receiver and can receive messages on the AIS and AIS long-range channels.

The three satellites in this constellation are smaller than standard satellites, weighing between 1kg and 10kg, “an affordable, functional option”, according to Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT).

The first Maritime Domain Awareness Satellite constellation (MDASat-1). Photo: Department of Science and Innovation

In conversation with Sansa engineer, Justin Witten

We spoke to Justin Witten, the engineering manager for the SA National Space Agency (Sansa), to understand what the MDASat-1 constellation launch means for South Africa and the continent.

This article first appeared in The Citizen. Read the full interview here.