Radio bubbles superimposed over a photo of the MeerKAT that observed them. Credit: South African Radio Astronomy Observatory

Five billion years ago, two galaxies collided, mixing astronomical gas clouds that produced a radio-wavelength laser called a megamaser. That laser traveled for billions of parsecs, crossing intergalactic space as all of Earth’s history played out. And in April 2022, it was detected by the MeerKAT radio telescope in South Africa

It was the farthest megamaser of its kind ever detected, and researchers dubbed it Nkalakatha, the isiZulu word for “big boss.” This was an international achievement by researchers from South African universities, observatories and partners in 12 other countries. 

Today, South Africa is an evident center of gravity in the African space community. It hosts some of the world’s most sophisticated ground-based space infrastructure, its space supply chain is strong, and its public sector institutions are oriented toward growing the space industry and national capabilities. Ultimately, however, the heart of South Africa’s space story is not where it has been but where it is going—and the outcomes will shape space activity across the continent. 

A Catalyzing Force in African Space

The MeerKAT telescope that spotted Nkalakatha has made record-setting finds since it became operational nearly four years ago. However, the 64-radio antenna array is a precursor to a much larger and more powerful telescope, the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), slated to come online in the coming years. 

SKA is an international project to build the world’s largest radio telescope. South Africa’s arid Karoo region will host SKA’s high- and mid-frequency dishes, while Australia will host the low-frequency antennas. Interestingly, while Karoo is the hub for the continent, other countries in Africa will also host radio telescopes as a part of SKA. It is an example of how South African space missions can invigorate space activity throughout the African continent, a case of what I call “partnership leadership.”

This manifests in other ways, such as how South African satellites have been developed between universities and industry and placed in orbit by foreign launch providers. It is also true in the case of the formation of the continent-wide African Space Agency (AfSA), headquartered in Egypt. 

“South Africa was quite involved in developing the proposals around creating the African Space Agency,” said Pontsho Maruping, chairperson for the South African Council for Space Affairs. “Part of the intention is to create capabilities in Africa but also to look at joint missions. If nations launch complementary systems, then they can share the data equally among partners.”

The global space community thrives on collaboration, but for South Africa, a reliance on space products and services purchased from other countries also means that the development of domestic capabilities may need further encouragement. For Maruping, this will require some updates to the foundational legislation, the Space Affairs Act, first passed in 1993.

“That legislation was created before we had an agency and companies working in the space environment,” said Maruping. “What we want to focus on is creating an enabling legislation that will build local capacity, local competencies, support the growth of local companies, as well as create an infrastructure that supports the local space companies.”

A Matter of Confidence in the Private Sector

South Africa today enjoys a strong space supply chain with domestic suppliers that can deliver the specialized parts and materials needed for space assets. This supply chain is a vestige of the Apartheid era, when international sanctions on South Africa meant most of the country’s technology (particularly in the defense industry) had to be created with domestic resources and capabilities. 

With the end of Apartheid in 1994, the political calculus changed but the supply chain remained. Today, South African space companies have access to, for example, raw materials and precision manufacturing because the skills and machines needed in defense translate well to the kinds of materials needed for space activities. 

“South Africa has all the system primes, communications capabilities, great manufacturing base and supply chain, we have all the ingredients” for a strong commercial space sector, said James Barrington-Brown, CEO of New Space Systems and a 30-year veteran of the satellite industry. So what is standing in the way of runaway growth?

“It’s a matter of confidence,” said Barrington-Brown. “Africans have been told for so long that they can’t do anything that they’ve started to believe it. When organizations want a satellite, they go to China or Russia or France and buy one because they don’t feel confident enough to create their own. Africans won’t buy from Africans because they are not confident they will get something that works or is a value for their money.”

As a result, he said, South African space companies are export-focused, as there is not enough domestic demand to support a sustainable industry. Given that foreign space markets (particularly in the United States) account for the majority of the global space industry, exporting space products and services is necessary wherever a company operates. For South Africa, however, developing local capabilities will require a shift in confidence, according to Barrington-Brown, who added that selling domestic products and services to local customers has the add-on effect of building local capabilities, which in turn fuels more innovation, investment, and commercial activity. 

Fortunately, there is some progress in this direction. In January 2022, South Africa launched a constellation of nanosatellites developed exclusively on the African continent. The Maritime Domain Awareness Satellite constellation (MDASat-1) launched from Cape Canaveral on the SpaceX Transporter-3 mission. South Africa’s Minister of Higher Education, Science and Innovation Blade Nzimande said, “This will further cement South Africa’s position as an African leader in small satellite development, and help the country to capture a valuable share of a niche market in the fast-growing global satellite value chain.”

Education Needs for Workforce Development

The world is familiar with arguably the most successful South African in the space community, SpaceX founder Elon Musk, originally from Pretoria. The question for South Africa is how to identify and encourage more innovators, scientists, business leaders, and all the skilled talent needed to fuel a growing space economy. 

A chronic challenge for South Africa is significant inequality in access to opportunity that exists in different regions of the country. Today, just 6% of South Africans hold any university degree, and among OECD countries, South Africa ranks lowest in the percentage of 25- to 34-year-olds with tertiary education. 

“Developing capabilities is unfortunately a numbers game,” said Maruping. “Not all students will take up engineering. Locally, it’s really difficult. Skilled talent is in demand, and a lot of sectors need the same skills. The biggest hurdle is just not being able to produce a lot of quality engineers in the numbers that are required to support the economy.”

One advantage for South Africa is that nearly half the population (44%) is younger than 25 years old, which means there are millions of opportunities to attract more young people with an interest in space into science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. It’s why Space Foundation is proud to count two South African educators in our Teacher Liaison program, Shaun Keyser with Keyser Training and Steve Sherman with Living Maths. The Teach Liaison program equips teachers with space-themed approaches and lesson plans that they can, in turn, share with their professional peers in their home country, thereby expanding capacity to foster student interest in space and STEM subjects worldwide. 

Overall, South Africa holds fantastic assets in the space economy, and it also faces challenges in accessing demand and nurturing the domestic space industry. In many ways, this is true for all space-faring nations. It’s why no matter how developed a country’s space capabilities. It takes collaboration across the global space community, and South Africa is a vital player for the continent and the world’s future in space.

Shelli Brunswick is the chief operating officer of Space Foundation.

Shelli Brunswick is the chief operating officer of Space Foundation, Colorado Springs, Colorado.