The South African company building hardware for outer space

While South Africa does not have its own dedicated space programme to send rockets into orbit, it does have private entities which are involved in the space industry.

One of these entities is the Space Advisory Company (SAC), a space engineering consultancy based in Somerset West, South Africa.

SAC employs over 50 people and designs hardware for use in outer space, including spacecraft sub-systems and complete spacecraft.

The company recently manufactured a digital controller unit for use in the Netherlands-China Low Frequency Orbiter, which is currently situated 80,000km beyond the moon at the second Earth-Moon Lagrange point.

MyBroadband spoke to SAC CEO Duncan Stanton about the scope of the company’s work, and what they currently focus their efforts on.

Design and development

Stanton said the company designs hardware for use in outer space, a task which presents unique challenges – such as accounting for thermal stress and radiation exposure.

“SAC is predominately a space engineering consultancy, with a focus on design and development,” said Stanton.

“We therefore take the responsibility of the design of the hardware, be it digital or mechanical, outsource the raw manufacturing, and then take the responsibility to assemble, integrate, and test the various sub-systems and systems that form part of the spacecraft, or the complete spacecraft.”

When building this type of hardware, the company is forced to adapt its designs to the harsh environment of space and build systems which can handle significant and rapid thermal changes, powerful vibration, and acoustic and radiation exposure. They must also be able to operate in a vacuum.

“Having the skills, tools, and capabilities to design for these conditions and understanding what is possible from the local and international hardware manufacturing vendors is a key to our success,” said Stanton.

Increased local funding for space engineering is required to grow South Africa’s contribution to the space industry, however.

“It is a rewarding challenge running a completely privately-owned space company from the tip of Africa,” he said.

“The level of investment in space engineering within the national space programme remains largely insufficient to leverage the capability and ingenuity of our local South African workforce.”

He added that more local support for research and development is key to the generation of intellectual property which can be licensed and exported, and could create more jobs and income in the technology sector.

“In order to remain sustainable, the majority of the work is performed with international clients,” said Stanton.

“Being able to compete internationally underlines the world-class ability of the staff within SAC.”

SAC Gecko camera
SAC Gecko camera

Successful projects

SAC has designed an incredible array of hardware which has been implemented everywhere from the Earth’s surface to far into outer space.

“Starting on Earth, we provide the core systems engineering capacity for the Science Data Processor for the Square Kilometre Array project,” said Stanton.

“Rapidly climbing in altitude to around 400km, and travelling at more than 7.5 kilometres a second, SAC successfully demonstrated an operational camera product, called the Gecko.”

The Gecko camera was designed, developed, and assembled in-house at SAC, and boasts impressive capabilities.

“What makes this product unique is the overall performance squeezed into the palm of your hand. It has the ability to take more than 4,000 colour images of Earth at a resolution of around 30 metres, protected against the very rough ride to space, and able to endure the harsh environment of space for a number of years of operation,” said Stanton.

SAC was also contracted by SCS-Space for the design and delivery of the nSight-1 satellite, which houses the Gecko camera and is currently orbiting Earth.

“Besides being involved in a number of current remote sensing satellite and payload projects, of which a few are designated for launch during this year, the highlight achieved in terms of altitude is just about 500,000 kilometres,” said Stanton.

“Aboard the Chang’e-4 relay satellite, launched on 21 May, is a very specialised and sensitive radio astronomy instrument,” he said.

“The controller unit for this instrument was designed and supplied by SAC to Radboud University as part of the Netherlands-China Low Frequency Explorer, to be deployed around 80,000 kilometres beyond the moon.”

Stanton said the company believes this is the furthest a wholly South African-designed and supplied advanced digital processing piece of hardware has ever been from the Earth’s surface.

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The South African company building hardware for outer space