South Africa’s nanosatellite: one year, 250 million kilometres

TshepisoSAT, South Africa’s first nanosatellite, has survived one year in space.

This is significant, because according to the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT) more than 50% of CubeSats fail early in their missions.

“The odds are against you when you launch a nanosatellite, but CPUT got it right, and this is a major achievement,” said Peter Martinez, the chairperson of the South African Council for Space Affairs (SACSA).

TshepisoSAT has survived the sun’s harsh radiation, extreme temperature fluctuations, a few strong solar storms, and two close encounters with defunct Russian satellites.

In the year that it’s been in orbit, TshepisoSAT has travelled 250 million kilometres, taken many images, and inspired thousands of learners, resulting in a tripling of student applications for the CPUT Space Programme for 2015.

TshepisoSAT's photo of Earth
TshepisoSAT’s photo of Earth

It was designed and built by CPUT postgraduate students participating in the Satellite Systems Engineering Programme at the French South African Institute of Technology, in collaboration with the South African National Space Agency (SANSA) and funded by the Department of Science and Technology, and the National Research Foundation.

The 1.2 kilogram cube satellite measures 10x10x10cm; and took 18 months, 30,000 hours, and forty CPUT students to build.

It contains 4,000 electronic components and runs on 3 Watts of power – the same as a low-power light bulb.

TshepisoSAT orbits the Earth up to 15 times a day at an altitude of 600 kilometres, and has been included in South Africa’s national register of space assets after receiving its official licence from SACSA.

It is a 24-hour job to monitor the satellite and decipher the data, and an engineer is employed full-time to operate the satellite and package the data and telemetry received.

TshepisoSAT's first photo
TshepisoSAT’s first photo

“We are currently concentrating efforts on deploying the nano-satellite’s main antenna that is connected to the high-frequency beacon,” said director of the CPUT space programme, Robert van Zyl.

“This will be used to study the propagation of radio waves through the ionosphere, providing valuable space weather data to the SANSA Space Science Directorate and to enable improved space weather modelling and forecasts,” van Zyl said.

Sandile Malinga from SANSA said that this space weather data gathering was integral to the understanding and monitoring of solar activity during this period of solar maxima, a phenomenon that can impact the functioning of technology and electricity on Earth, as well as the operation of satellites.

The team at CPUT has started development on ZACUBE–2, which will be three times larger than TshepisoSat and will be used for more advanced Earth observation and remote sensing applications, as well as space weather research.

It expects ZACUBE–2 to be ready for launch in 2016.

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South Africa’s nanosatellite: one year, 250 million kilometres