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South African nanosatellites will track shipping, fires
October 29, 2019, 4:20 pm

Will prevent marine poaching and mitigate fire risk

AIS Data spread for SDR payload. Photo Credit: Amaya Space

A constellation of South African nanosatellites will be put in orbit next year to monitor shipping to prevent the poaching of marine resources such as abalone and sharks, while they will also track fires so ground-based personnel can move livestock out of harm’s way and prevent the spread of the fire.

The technology for this constellation is being proven right now as the ZACube 2 research nanosatellite from the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT) will log its 300th day in orbit on the 23rd October 2019. ZACube 1, also known as TshepisoSat, was launched on 21st November 2013 and is still communicating with the ground station.

“We are proud of the achievements that the African Space Innovation Center (ASIC) has accomplished.

The ZACube 2 satellite is performing well in orbit and proving the technology that the university has developed,” Professor Robert van Zyl, the Director of French South African Institute of Technology (FSATI) said.

The ZACube 2 is a cube satellite, which are satellites that conform to a specific design form factor. In 1999, the California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly) and Stanford University developed the CubeSat specifications to promote and develop the skills necessary for the design, manufacture, and testing of small satellites intended for Low Earth Orbit (LEO) that perform a number of scientific research functions and explore new space technologies.

“One Cube unit in CubeSat specifications is 100 mm × 100 mm × 113.5 mm. ZACube 2 is a 3 unit CubeSat, made up of three units stacked on top of each other. ZACube 2 is approximately 100mm x 100mm x 340mm and weighs 3.3 kilograms,” Shane Martin, a mechanical engineer at ASIC, explained.

“ZACube 2 is testing two payloads that the university has developed. The first payload is a Software Defined Radio (SDR). The SDR’s primary mission is to collect Automatic Identification System (AIS) messages and download the messages to our ground station,” van Zyl added.

The AIS is an automatic tracking system that uses transponders on ships. By international law all ships have to have AIS so that local coast guards can track the movements in their waters.

ZACube 2 uses the SDR to sample the AIS band width and log each individual message received from vessels in its swath path. Currently South Africa purchases AIS data from foreign data providers and uses AIS receivers stationed along the coast. ZACube 2’s SDR payload gives SA its own source of data.

The AIS data is fed into the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) Oceans and Coastal Information Management System (OCIMS).

“ZACube 2’s SDR has been a great success in proving the validity of the technology. We have partnered with the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI), to develop a constellation of AIS tracking satellites called Maritime Domain Awareness Satellites (MDASat),” van Zyl said.

The MDASat program falls within the mission and objectives of Operation Phakisa. The government’s Operation Phakisa focuses on marine transport and manufacturing activities such as coastal shipping, trans-shipment, boat building, repair and refurbishment; offshore oil and gas exploration; aquaculture; and marine protection services.

The first phase of three satellites is to be launched in September next year. The satellites’ payload will be the CPUT- developed software packages that control the radio equipment and antennas on the satellite.

Amya Space is the spin-off company that has been created to host the intellectual property and sell the radio products to other CubeSat users.

“FireSat is our second payload on the ZACube 2. It is a K-line imager that is a new technique of wildfire detection and monitoring from space,“ van Zyl said.

In partnership with the CSIR, the K-line imager was developed to capture potassium emissions from fires. Potassium is an essential plant macronutrient and all vegetation biomass fires exhibit characteristic spectral “K-line” emissions in the near infrared (NIR), which can be isolated and observed with suitable optical filtering.

The FireSat program is aimed at taking photos of fires from space, giving government early warnings about possible fire damage to an area.

This can help local authorities with livestock death prevention and fire mitigation.

“We are proud to be taking our radio products to the International Aeronautical Congress in Washington DC at the end of the month. We hope to promote our products and show that there are satellite engineering skills on the continent,” van Zyl said.

Dominic Preuss and Helmo Preuss in Cape Town, South Africa for The BRICS Post