South Africa’s SumbandilaSat Reaches the End of its Design Life

The South African satellite, SumbandilaSat (Pathfinder in Venda) is reaching the end of its life and will deorbit on Friday 10 December 2021.

The satellite was launched in 2009 and took a total of 1,128 high-resolution, usable images. In addition, these imageries were applied in local research and on the Copernicus (previously GMES: Global Monitoring for Environment and Security) programme. The data also contributed towards disaster management such as flood monitoring in Namibia and fire campaigns in the Kruger National Park in South Africa. Furthermore, it also recorded timely images of the Fukushima nuclear disaster and the Tuscaloosa tornado in the USA.

An image of Cape Town captured by SumbandilaSat. Source: SANSA

In May 2005, the then DST (Department of Science and Technology) of the South African Government commissioned Stellenbosch University and SunSpace to develop the ZASat pathfinder satellite program (later renamed SumbandilaSat), a technology demonstrator in conjunction with the South African industry. Consequently, SumbandilaSat was delivered 15 months later and launched from Baikonur, Kazakhstan on September 17 2009 with monitoring and satellite support from the SANSA Space Operations facility in Hartebeesthoek.

However, SumbandilaSat was unfortunately launched right at the start of the 24th solar cycle when the sun became more active and therefore was exposed to ever-increasing levels of adverse space radiation. Satellites are subject to radiation associated with space weather events and are affected by radiation events in several ways which can lead to early termination of their usefulness. On Wednesday 14 September 2011, data concerning the satellite’s primary function was received for the last time after every two years. It has since been gradually losing altitude and will most likely burn up in the atmosphere while re-entering the earth’s atmosphere on Friday 10 December 2021. 

Critical SumbandilaSat telemetry collection over its 12 year lifetime. Source: SANSA

SumbandilaSat, although crippled because of space weather phenomena, continued to provide valuable engineering data during its more than 12 years in orbit allowing the South African Space Industry to build on this successful mission. The South African National Space Agency (SANSA) has been monitoring space weather since 2011 when it launched a limited research and development Space Weather Centre at its facility in Hermanus. This facility is currently being upgraded to a fully operational 24/7 space weather warning centre for the African region by 2022, along with advanced research capabilities in the space weather field. 

The SumbandilaSat mission not only re-established South Africa as a space-faring nation with an in-orbit small technology demonstrator but also fostered human capital development. The programme allowed for the training of nine new black trainee engineers (four of which were female) and broadened the experience of 78 other engineers. On the academic front, the Sumbandila program produced 18 Masters and two PhD students in engineering at Stellenbosch University.

Dr Val Munsami, CEO of the South African National Space Agency (SANSA) explained that the Sumbandila mission has demonstrated South Africa’s capability in space engineering and has paved the way for more satellite missions as part of the Space Infrastructure Hub (SIH) currently in development. The SIH will see a suite of different classes of satellites being launched in the coming years drawing on the heritage created through the Sumbandila mission.

Furthermore, Dr Val mentioned that although South Africa is saddened to witness the end of this aspirational satellite, it has led to the establishment of the nanosatellite missions of ZACUBE 1 and 2 by the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT). The satellite constellation will see the addition of a further seven nanosatellites that are in development for support to Operation Phakisa (monitoring of the marine environment and economy). 

Further, investment in human resources through the SumbandilaSat era has contributed towards SANSA’s programme of skills and industry development for future space missions.