JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — While the sole ambition of many countries is to salvage their floundering economies, South Africa is taking a bold step that it hopes will raise its international profile: the creation of its own space agency.
“We want to create a new vision of South Africa and Africa as a place where you can do world-class and world-leading science and technology,” said Bernie Fanaroff, who is leading South Africa's bid to be the site for the construction of the world's largest telescope, the Square Kilometer Array.
The move is part of South Africa’s goal to move away from an economy based on the exploitation of resources, such as gold and diamonds, and transform itself into an economy based on a highly skilled population. Space science and technology is one of the main components of its strategy, along with climate science, energy security and pharmaceutical research.
By 2018, South Africa aims to generate more than half of its national income from knowledge-based industries and increase the number of its patent applications.
South Africa's space agency, which was authorized by President Kgalema Motlanthe earlier this year and is to be set up before the end of 2009, will hardly compete with the likes of the United States’ National Aeronautics and Space Administration or the European Space Agency, but it will nonetheless oversee several ambitious projects, including the bid for the Square Kilometer Array telescope and the launching of satellites.
South Africa’s focus on space dates back to 1685, when Dutch colonists established an observatory. More recently, in 1999, SUNSAT, South Africa’s first satellite, was launched by NASA. In 2002, Mark Shuttleworth, a South African entrepreneur, became one of the world's first space tourists when he paid $20 million to join a Soyuz mission to the International Space Station.
In 2005, South Africa completed the largest optical telescope in the southern hemisphere, the Southern African Large Telescope (Salt), which has a 33-foot-wide mirror. The telescope was modeled after the Hobby-Ebberly Telescope at the McDonald Observatory in Texas. Funded in part by the United States and several other countries, the Salt now operates with a number of scientific partners, including several American universities.
Today, South Africa has no plans to send a man to the moon or even into space, but the country aims to launch at least one satellite from its own territory by 2018. Ron Olivier, executive director of Sun Space and Information Systems, a private company that evolved from the group of Stellenbosch University researchers who built SunSat, said that the creation of a space agency is a "very positive sign" for the country's space community.
One of the main goals of the new space agency will be to bring together and coordinate the activities of several different South African agencies and projects that are related to space exploration and research. Olivier said the process to get government permits, collaborative research and funding should be much smoother once the new agency is in place.
“The fact that your space arena is not fragmented and that there are enough programs to sustain space activities certainly makes it a much more attractive proposition for possible investors,” Olivier said.
Another objective of the government’s space strategy is to create exciting new jobs in the science field. With a quarter of South Africa's population unemployed and chronic skills shortages at all levels of society, these jobs are expected to encourage young people to study science.
SunSpace does its part in skills development. The company has kept strong ties with Stellenbosch University and allows students to be exposed to its major projects, including SUMBANDILASAT, a satellite to be launched later this year from Russia.
The Square Kilometer Array may well be one of South Africa’s most far-reaching scientific projects and it should offer plenty of training opportunities for young local scientists. South Africa and Australia are the two countries vying to host the SKA, a radio telescope composed of thousands of 40-foot-wide dishes. Promoters say South Africa’s remote Karoo desert offers an ideal location as it is virtually free from radio interference from television or cell phone signals.
Construction of the SKA is estimated to cost $2 billion. The multinational project will be funded by 13 countries: Australia, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Italy, Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, South Africa, the U.K. and the United States. A decision on the successful bid is expected over the next couple of years.
South Africa is going ahead with the construction of MeerKAT, a smaller radio telescope consisting of 80 dishes to be completed by 2012, at a cost of $150 million. Fanaroff said 150 students, including 32 students from other African countries, are involved in the MeerKAT project.
“We want to use the MeerKAT to develop our young people, firstly by giving them an excitement that convinces them that they should go into science and technology careers, but secondly by giving them an opportunity to study these fields and to develop skills that will be world-class skills and that will enable them to compete in the world economy in these high-tech areas,” Fanaroff said.
Space research is an expensive proposition, and the global financial crisis could test South Africa’s resolve. Fanaroff said funding for the SKA should be less exposed to short-term risk as it covers the period 2011 to 2022.
Nhlanhla Nyide, spokesman for the Department of Science and Technology, acknowledged that the country’s treasury might be reluctant to fund space projects as money gets tight and priority is given to areas such as housing and service delivery. Nyide said, however, that the consolidation of South Africa’s space landscape under one umbrella may eliminate unnecessary costs.
“We’re hopeful that once the economy turns we’ll be in a better place to actually take advantage of our initiative in this area,” Nyide said.
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