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‘SANSA is working on a roadmap for the SA space programme’

Sandile Malinga, SANSA, South Africa
Dr. Sandile Malinga
CEO, South African National Space Agency (SANSA)

Since its inception in 2010, the South African National Space Agency has been working to derive greater value from space science and technology for the benefit of the South African society. In this interview, Dr. Sandile Malinga talks about the agency’s ongoing projects and what lies in store for the South African space programme

Please tell us about SANSA (South African National Space Agency) and its activities.

SANSA was established in 2010 by the South African Government with a mandate to derive greater value from space science and technology for the benefit of the South African society. South Africa has been involved in a number of space activities for a long time; however, these efforts were not well coordinated. Thus, it was decided to establish a space agency that would work towards harmonising these efforts. When SANSA was established, it took over two entities; the first of those was the Satellite Applications Centre (SAC), which has been supporting various nations across the globe in their satellite launch services and other related activities for over 50 years. SAC was also responsible for earth observation activities in South Africa. The second agency we took over was the Hermanus Magnetic Observatory, which focuses primarily on space science. With respect to our earth observation activities, the huge stock of our data goes as far back as the early ‘70s. We have in excess of one million images, which are used extensively for a number of activities including change detection, detecting soil quality for agricultural activities and overcoming challenges related to housing.

Tell us about some of your major projects.

South Africa is facing a lot of challenges related to housing owing to the presence of several informal settlements. The rate of urbanisation in the country is very high, adding to the problem. So, we have initiated a number of projects, under which the government is trying to upgrade these informal settlements and relocate people to more formal structures. We have identified 45 priority municipality areas where intervention is required.

We have another project related to disaster management. Currently, we are seeking to become the members of a newly created disaster charter, which will make us the regional hub in working together and coordinating our activities with the national disaster management entity in our country. There are several other projects that we are involved in with our partners. We are working with the CSIR (Council for Scientific and Industrial Research), Agricultural Research Council (ARC) and the Council for Geosciences (COG) for a number of projects, which include projects related to fire monitoring, drought and agriculture related activities etc.

We take part in a number of multi-national activities, with the Europeans in particular. For example, the Africa Monitoring of the Environment for Sustainable Development project is being carried out under the EU partnership. Besides, we have taken up a number of projects with GEO (Group on Earth Observations). We are also a member of the CEOS (Committee on Earth Observation Satellites) wherein we play a key role in capacity development initiatives. We support the notion of data democracy, in line with the thinking of INPE (National Institute for Space Research) of Brazil. We are also a part of the CBERS – China-Brazil Earth Resources Satellite wherein we have signed an agreement with the two stakeholder countries to acquire satellite data for free and distribute the same to other countries in the southern Africa region.

Another important initiative in the context of GEO is the AfriGEOSS. The initiative has largely been pursued by African nations under the leadership of Nigeria and South Africa, who are responsible for promoting AfriGEOSS and making sure that there is a well coordinated approach within the African continent related to GEOSS. The African Resource Management Satellite Constellation (ARMC) initiative was undertaken in 2009 by South Africa, Algeria, Nigeria and Kenya. The four countries signed an agreement to jointly develop a constellation of 3-4 satellites for monitoring resources on the African continent. As their contribution to the constellation, Nigeria has already built and launched their satellite. South Africa is currently working on building its satellite for the constellation and SANSA is responsible for the same. Although there is no official name for the satellite yet, we refer to it as EO Sat 1. The satellite is scheduled to be launched in 2017-18.

How is the demand for imagery from local users? Is SANSA able to cater to the demand? How do you foresee the demand growing?

The demand for imagery is high. There is on-demand request for sub-metre resolution imagery. The public sector, in particular, is more interested in SPOT imagery. We produce an annual mosaic of 2.5 metre resolution, which has got high demand and is used by around 60 government entities at the local, provincial and national level. We are able to cater to the demand up to a large extent.

I see the demand for imagery growing significantly. We are now looking at Spot 6 and 7 at a resolution of 1.5, which will significantly increase the number of applications. Such high resolution imagery will have a number of applications. For example, it can help in more intense monitoring of informal settlements.

Whether it is for informal settlements or mining, high resolution imagery would be of great use. Is SANSA looking at building its capacities?

EO Sat 1 is a part of our capacity building efforts. South Africa launched its first satellite called SUNSAT in 1999. Subsequently, Sumbandila Sat was launched in 2009, which had a resolution of 6.25 metres. With EO Sat 1, our aim is to come down to 2.5 metres. While it would still be unable to match Spot 6 and 7, it will give us the ability to get an image when we want. At the moment, it takes us up to 9 months to acquire the images that we require to cover the entire country.

Does SANSA also provide value added services on top of the data?

Yes, we do provide value added services or products in a few areas such as the human settlement project. In other instances, we just acquire the data, process it and give it to other people. Our annual SPOT mosaic is another flagship project. Apart from that, we have a number of other services such as disaster management, land use etc. where we work along with other agencies such as the NDMC (National Disaster Management Centre).

SANSA is working actively with the INPE of Brazil and imbibing the spirit of data democracy. Are there any initiatives to provide data for free?

After its launch, the data we acquire from EO Sat 1 will be distributed for free, particularly to those countries that are a part of the ARMC partnership. While there are just four member countries at the moment, we are looking to broaden the membership spectrum and include more countries. It is pertinent to mention here that, as members, we are not expecting all the countries to come up with their own satellite because not all countries can afford a satellite. We are looking at countries that have the capacity to put up a ground station to get access to data as we believe that the value of data is in its use.

SANSA has a very good partnership with Astrium. Can you tell us more about that?

We have an agreement with Astrium but it is more on a commercial basis. As per the agreement, we distribute SPOT 5 data for free. The license and commercial agreement with Astrium defines several categories wherein we can distribute the data. For instance, for government and other public entities in South Africa, we are allowed to distribute the data for free. However, there are several limitations on how we can distribute it to other entities.

Do you have partnerships with any other commercial players? Are there any such tie ups wherein the users in South Africa have to buy imagery through you?

On a commercial basis, we procure imagery from DigitalGlobe. The government and other public sector entities in South Africa buy imagery through us, but for other companies, the sellers can approach and sell imagery directly to them. While the private sector can purchase imagery directly from the vendors, they can get a discount if they buy through us. However, at the moment there is no clear policy on how we go about it.

Are you looking at creating partnerships with government entities in other countries, to get high-resolution imagery?

A few months back, we spoke to ISRO (Indian Space Research Organisation) and Antrix on the possible use of Cartosat and Resourcesat imagery, but things could not materialise on that front due to budget constraints. SPOT 6 imagery is engrained in our public sector and any change from Spot 6 to others would break the continuity. So, we were looking to add Resourcesat and Cartosat on top of what SPOT is already providing. At present, the digital elevation issues are especially a challenge. At the moment, we have 5 metre resolution but the demand is for up to 1 metre. Getting Cartosat and Resourcesat can assist us in fulfilling the demand.

Is SANSA working towards creating a space policy for South Africa?

In South Africa, there are two players looking at space activities; the Department of Trade and Industry is responsible for the space policy as well as regulatory matters related to space. Matters related to space policy are particularly handled by the South African Council for Space Affairs, which is under the Department of Trade and Industry. On the implementation side, the DST (Department of Science and Technology) is responsible for the national space strategy. Although SANSA is not directly responsible for determining the space policy and strategy, we are involved as the implementing agency of the DST.

Is there any initiative to bring together all these distributed activities and ensure a more coordinated approach towards all space activities?

That is the primary role of SANSA. We are currently working on an initiative called the National Space Programme, which clearly identifies four sub-programmes; the earth observation sub- program, the space science sub-programme, the space operations sub programme and a space engineering sub-programme. We want to pursue all these programmes under the broad banner of the National Space Programme. Under these sub-programmes, there are a number of entities with niche roles and responsibilities. We believe that once the National Space Programme is finalised, it would be able to give us a sense of direction and a roadmap for the South African space programme.

What is SANSA’s contribution to the National Spatial Data Infrastructure?

In South Africa, we are the primary custodians of space acquired data. There are a number of other players such as the Chief Directorate of National Geospatial Information (NGI), which is the coordinating agency. Thus, as custodians of space acquired data, we acquire, archive and distribute the data while NGI acts as the central hub for a number of other activities. The DST is responsible for the South African earth observation strategy, which also has a sales portal. At present, the data that we acquire is made available to that portal, but ideally there should be a link between that portal and the initiatives of the NGI.

Please tell us about your capacity building activities.

We undertake a lot of capacity building activities. We do student training where we work together with universities to build capacities. We have come up with a Fundisa disk (Zulu name for teach), which is a hard drive containing a lot of imagery and open source software. We visit educational institutions and distribute the Fundisa disk to students for free. We are planning to launch a student portal soon, which will allow the students to collaborate and communicate.