The Role of Universities in Building A Resource – Dependent Space Industry

Universities and research institutes serve as essential parts of the African space ecosystem as they nurture and produce qualified personnel to participate in various sectors of the African space industry. 

To this end, African countries have invested more in human capacity developments and training that cut across Earth observation (EO), satellite communication, astronomy, and space science. In addition, tertiary institutions have continued to play vital roles in Africa’s space science and technology development. They have also played important roles in various satellite development through project implementation at universities across the continent. 

Several NewSpace companies have been established as spinoffs from universities, strengthening the interdependence between universities and industries. In addition, these companies will take on many of today’s challenges and proffer sustainable solutions to them.

One such research group is the Electronic Systems Laboratory (ESL), established at Stellenbosch University in 1991. The postgraduate research group was the development facility for SUNSAT, South Africa’s first operational space satellite. Since then, the organisation has continued to be at the forefront of space satellite development in South Africa, especially from the capacity-building perspective. 

Space in Africa had a chat with Dr Willem Jordaan, a senior lecturer at the university who is also a point of contact for the University Space Engineering Consortium (UNISEC). Dr Jordaan took us through the organisations’ past, ongoing and future projects as a converging point to their capacity development initiatives. 

Please give a brief description of your organisation and its core objectives.

We are the Electronic Systems Laboratory (ESL), a postgraduate research laboratory stationed at Stellenbosch University. We have been involved in satellite and satellite systems support for several years. Since we are part of a university, our core objective is human capacity development, particularly training satellite engineers. In addition, we ensure that we set up programmes and research projects to discover the best talents in the field and train them to compete at the highest levels with their counterparts globally.

Can you illuminate the new planar air-bearing test facility and other related projects?

At ESL, we have been a part of the space and satellite ecosystem since the late 1990s when we built SUNSAT, Africa’s first-ever domestically developed satellite. The satellite project, developed wholly by engineers at Stellenbosch University, ran for almost ten years and had two primary objectives.

First, it served as a much-needed capacity development tool in space mission designs and construction for post-graduate students at Stellenbosch University. Furthermore, it provided an avenue to build a working satellite with a high-performance Earth observation camera. It excelled in both goals as more than 100 engineers received hands-on training during the project, and all subsystems [except for the solar panels] were developed and manufactured in-house.

Illustration of SUNSAT microsatellite. Source: Stellenbosch University

The success of the SUNSAT project laid the foundation for the growth of component manufacturing in South Africa. In addition, the technology and human capacity developed during this project birthed the launch of more indigenous satellite projects and spin-offs that have expanded our work.

To ensure that we do this on a much larger scale, we are refurbishing our facilities and focusing much on what is important to us; producing capable engineers to take charge of Africa’s current and future projects. We have three strategic resources that are very important. The first is a ground station.

We also have two different types of air-bearing facilities. One is a rotating air-bearing specifically utilised to test attitude determination and control systems (ADCS). Then, we have a planar air-bearing, microgravity simulator that levitates and creates a semi-frictionless environment where one can do close proximity and rendezvous experiments. This is used to test thrusters and rendezvous methodologies. We previously had a planar air-bearing facility, but we have rebuilt and shrunk the moving carts to meet our current needs and make them more suitable for nanosatellite testing.

This is all in the context of an internal satellite mission defined as “Docksat”, where we aim to test and investigate multiple docking and undocking manoeuvres. The mission requires research in online orbit trajectory optimisation, electric propulsion control and, of course, the docking mechanism itself. Due to that mission, we have invested much in recreating these planar air-bearing facilities to test and evaluate these mechanisms and the algorithms.

Lead markers on Docksat. Source: Stellenbosch University.
Please discuss some of your organisation’s milestones and future projects.

To reiterate what I said earlier, our milestones are catered towards developing satellite engineers, so all the projects and missions we are involved in are geared towards achieving that. For example, we are currently running several short courses at the moment, that are targeted towards the South African satellite industry. We are doing that primarily to improve the satellite engineering ecosystem in the country. Soon, we aim to roll it out to other partners, specifically in Southern Africa, and then extend it to other African regions.

 The other thing we are working on from a research perspective is Docksat, a mission we have defined to focus on high-tech activities and abilities of nanosatellites. Similarly, we are in partnership with local companies around us and are indeed blessed with the recent abundance of space companies in South Africa.

South Africa hosts several local satellites and space component manufacturing companies building different satellite parts. To this end, we have partnered with many of them and got their support. Beyond that, we are also doing high-altitude balloon projects to better teach our students about the space environment.

High-altitude balloon launch. Source: Stellenbosch University

Lastly, we are also actively involved in UNISEC, an international organisation focusing on practical satellite training. Through this partnership, we have focused on creating projects and programmes to ensure we train local satellite engineers to the highest standard to develop the required workforce for the African space industry.

Speaking of UNISEC, the goal is to promote access to satellite engineering activities for all. So, how far does the project go?

A colleague and I are contact points for UNISEC in the Southern African region. We collaborate with Angola and Namibia and four academic institutions from South Africa. Three of these institutions are in the vicinity of Cape Town.

UNISEC has a comprehensive impact on the African continent, where we are trying to grow actively. The African space community is growing substantially, and we need to create a self-sufficient training cycle and disseminate the necessary know-how across the continent. This should be in building the required components and hardware and the knowledge to train our satellite experts. This will enable self-sustaining growth in the industry.

Currently, most people in the industry are trained outside the continent, and we cannot rely on that to build a sustainable workforce pipeline. To this end, we must train African experts using the African context. So UNISEC, in that regard, is a model organisation that amplifies the message, using our robust connection with many African regions. 

What is the minimum qualification for enrolment into your training programmes?

In South Africa, we mainly focus on postgraduate students. The need we have identified from commercial space players is their specific constraints and complexities within the space environment. So we are explicitly looking at postgraduate students to offer solutions to those issues and future ones. Beyond that, as I mentioned, we have short courses tailored towards those already in the industry to enhance their skills and knowledge.

But we don’t stop at the postgraduate levels, and we have been involved in several projects with elementary and high schools. For example, an increasing number of high schools in the Southern Africa region have some sort of robotics club, space club, or technology programme. Our involvement in their programmes has birthed several programmes, including assisting them in launching an experimental high-altitude balloon to test some hardware.

In addition, we have realised that even though the current industry need has restricted enrolling mostly post-graduates, we also need to pique the interest of younger students early to ensure that we have a steady supply of graduates. 

How do you fund your research and development? Does the university wholly finance it, or do you partner with specific institutions to create products?

The answer to that question is multifaceted. From a specific Stellenbosch research perspective, funding is a complex problem. Once again, we are fortunate that we are close to our industry, and at the moment, we are trying to align our work and interests to be helpful for the industry. We try to extract some funding through industry involvement, especially bursary funding for postgraduate students.

Another source of funding we frequently benefit from is our space agency bursary programme, where multiple students obtain funding for research through those channels. Much of our funding is involved with projects and research grants that we do with universities, specifically in Europe. For example, we have been a part of consortiums in the 7th Framework Programme for Research by the European Union. Those types of funding are very useful accelerators to increase our activities.

Please mention some of the projects you have participated in under the 7th Framework Programme for Research.

We have been fortunate to have participated in several EU projects where we contributed hardware and ADCS (Attitude Determination And Control System) software systems to multiple satellite projects. These FP7 projects include QB50 Project. The QB50 project measured the middle and lower thermosphere using a network of 50 CubeSats built by CubeSat teams worldwide to perform. We did not only contribute a satellite, but we also contributed about 20 ADCS systems for some of the other participants. 

Another project we were involved with was the DeorbitSail. The project was focused on building a nanosatellite to investigate passive deorbiting methods, so we were involved in the sail deployment and the control of the satellite to get the maximum aerodynamic drag. 

Lastly, we were engaged in a project known as RemoveDebris, where they looked at multiple potential methodologies for active debris removal. These included a net capture to actively remove pieces of space debris in space. Through that, many satellite components were developed, specifically ADCS components, and was the birth of a spin-off, CubeSpace, a NewSpace company that builds ADCS for small satellites.  A lot of the know-how was developed through our participation in those projects.

Speaking of removing debris, how well do you think South Africa is contributing to space debris removal and space sustainability?

We are in a less fortunate position as a country (and region), as Africa’s space ecosystem is still developing. As a result, we need to conform to rules and expectations that were not originally there. For example, regulations that require satellite owners to decommission their space objects more safely are relatively recent. In contrast, regions with a more extended space history could have developed these systems for satellite capabilities before needing to conform to these additional rules. These additional rules are great; we need them for a sustainable space environment. However, what is laudable about the African context is that many African players take these regulations very seriously. 

From the South African context, guidelines such as UNCOPUOS are actively pursued by and made a requirement for role-players within South Africa. Similarly, on a continental scale, African countries follow all procedures to ensure the peaceful use of space.

What challenges do you face while discharging your duties? 

One of the biggest challenges in academia and any business endeavour is funding. We need funding for satellite programmes, not individual satellite research, but rather significant funding for building satellites. 

An excellent way to spark interest in the space and satellite industry and make people choose space careers is to see people working on actual satellite projects. However, funding for such projects is very limited.

The second challenge concerns the qualified human resource sparsely scattered across the continent. The number of people in tertiary environments actively doing space-focused training is limited; you could take everyone in South Africa and fit them in one boardroom. That shows that only some people actively do satellite research and training as part of their primary job description. 

In conclusion, the two main challenges are funding, not for research but for actual satellite projects, and the second is human capacity development. You can solve one problem by actively solving the other. 

Lastly, are there opportunities for inter-university transfer where students from a different country could join your research?

We are very open to collaborative projects and try to collaborate as much as our capacity can withstand. To this end, we have hosted (and are hosting) several postgraduate students and academics worldwide, not just in Africa. So, we are open to everyone and welcome applicants globally.

Teaching material. Source: Stellenbosch University.