SANSA has been operating space weather for 10 years with some limitations and the new facility will enhance its capabilities to provide quality space weather services such as forecast, alerts, warning, and environmental data on weather conditions.
Responding to the country’s needs
Minister of Higher Education, Science and Innovation, Dr Blade Nzimande officially launched the facility and called it “a historic development”. SANSA is one of the department of science and innovation (DSI)’s key entities it uses to respond to the country’s socio-economic challenges by deploying cutting-edge science, technology and innovations.
Developing skills capabilities
Dr Nzimande said the launch of the facility is a culmination of a process that dates back to 2019 when SANSA developed a business case for the establishment of a space weather services capability. “The establishment took three years and building on the existing space weather research and development legacy in SANSA. It included infrastructure development, instrumentation deployment, product and service development, and skills capability development. The process of establishment of the new Space Weather Centre was completed by end of September 2022,” he said.
Multi-million rand investments
Dr Nzimande said in total his department’s investment amounted to R107.5 million over the three years. This, he said, included a ring-fenced establishment grant of R70.89 million received from the DSI and R36.6 million invested directly by SANSA from this Hermanus facility.
Dr Nzimande said DSI has harnessed the power of technology and innovation to support government’s economic reconstruction and recovery programme (ERRP), helped built government’s capacity to deal with COVID-19 and future pandemic threats, including supporting the revitalisation of existing sectors and industries. He said, as a government agency, SANSA’s responsibility is to ensure it contributes towards addressing challenges of poverty, unemployment, inequality, promoting the development and security of all South Africans.
Providing satellite imagery to key state organs
He said the DSI has also leveraged some of the “space capabilities to support South Africa’s domestic and foreign policy objectives”. For instance, they provided satellite imagery during the recent floods in KwaZulu-Natal and the national disaster management centre and co-operative governance and traditional affairs. Similar assistance was extended to the authorities dealing with the aftermath of the recent Jagersfontein mine waste dam collapse. In addition, indicated Dr Nzimande, the agency also helps with the mapping of South Africa’s informal settlements growth patterns supporting the human settlement department and the national integrated water information system drought status information for the department of water affairs and sanitation.
Partnering with African countries
According to Dr Nzimande, the agency is also forging partnership with African countries “to provide training in the application of space technologies and to create a network of scientific nodes for aligned research on the continent”. He cited the African Resource Management Constellation as one such initiative. The entity looks at African partners contributing a constellation of Earth observation satellites to allow Africa to manage more efficiently its natural resources and ensure food security, said Nzimande. In addition, it helps reduce costs and reliance on international satellite providers. “This demonstrates the rationale for cross-border cooperation across the African continent and pooling together science, technology and innovation resources to confront common existential problems,” he said.
Bringing data across the African continent
Emphasising the significance of collaboration on the African continent, SANSA’s Space Weather Centre MD Dr Lee-Anne McKinnell said: “Our data sources are solar observation satellites and a ground-based instrumentation network. This network belongs to SANSA, and is spread across the country, plus the [Gough and Marion] islands and Antarctica. We’re going to expand it, across Africa. As a recognised regional centre we need to be able to forecast for Africa, so we need to bring in data from across the continent. This expansion will be jointly funded by SANSA and our African partners, which include space agencies and universities.”
Monitoring space weather constantly
Andiswa Mlisa, SANSA’s acting chief executive said the centre will help build technological innovations to constantly monitor changes in space in order to predict potential catastrophes. “We have cellphones that we are so dependent on; we have GPS that we are so dependent on; we have electricity, and space weather can disrupt all of these infrastructures and technologies that form our daily lives and also because the space weather can damage our satellites, she explained. Furthermore, said Mlisa, if you can imagine a day without satellite communication, if the communication satellite is disrupted by space weather, it means no banking, no GPS for your car, no communication supply means, no cellphone.