Overberg Test Range could team with Nasa for big renewal

The Overberg Test Range could be used as a launch pad for a number of 'science missions' including balloons to study climate change. (Gallo)

The Overberg Test Range could be used as a launch pad for a number of 'science missions' including balloons to study climate change. (Gallo)

Government is considering brushing the dust off its rocket launching facilities to use them for space science. The Overberg Test Range has a wide complement of facilities, including the in-flight testing of advanced guided and aviation systems for the aerospace industry, but its launching facilities have been mothballed since 1992.

At the launch of Global Space Week on Friday, science and technology director general Phil Mjwara said his department was exploring the possibility of reviving the launch facilities, operated by arms company Denel, at the Western Cape site. "We are looking at the feasibility of [whether] it would make sense for us to resuscitate the activities there," said Mjwara, adding that he had returned from the United States following conversations with Nasa about possible collaboration.

"There are a range of facilities we hadn't thought about, such as nonorbital launches, balloons" to research climate change and the Southern Ocean, he said.

This would be an about-turn from the previous uses of Overberg Test Range's launch capacity, namely launching missiles in the late 1980s under the guide of Denel's previous incarnation, Armscor.

South Africa has a natural geographic advantage when it comes to studying climate change, and Southern Ocean research forms an important part of the science agenda in the country.
The Southern Ocean is the only ocean that is surrounded by other oceans, not land. University of Cape Town's Isabelle Ansorge, who is part of the Marine Research Institute, once described the Southern Ocean as the "lungs of the world's water".

The latest report from the United Nation's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts that global temperatures will increase by at least 1.5°C by the end of the century, as well as an increase in extreme weather events such as floods and droughts. More attention and resources are being channelled towards climate change and is one of South Africa's main focus areas.

'Science missions'
"We could use the [Overberg launching] facilities for a range of science missions to understand the unique research questions [around] the Southern Ocean," said Mjwara.

South Africa's location – aside from being close to Antarctica and the Southern Ocean – also allows for unique launch orbits. Dr Woodrow Whitlow, who used to work at Nasa and was in South Africa to promote Global Space Week, said: "I can see South Africa, with its wealth of technical talent … being able to build its own satellites, launch them into space … and be part of major international projects. [It would be] the first launch facility on the continent.

"For a certain class of payloads, South Africa could be justified [in reopening its space port] … there is that possibility, given where South Africa is and what orbits you can get onto from a launch point in South Africa."

He said that the department would hopefully meet with the South African research community later this year, before Nasa scientists visited next year. "The project may never see the light of day, but we have to do a feasibility study, especially if the global community is showing interest [in collaboration]."

It was not possible to get official comment from Nasa due to the United States government shutdown.

Meanwhile, Malinga confirmed that South Africa was back on track to launch its own satellite by 2017-18. Denel recently launched Spaceteq, its space engineering unit which includes personnel from microsatellite manufacturer Sunspace. Sunspace's intellectual property was bought by the department of science and technology for R55-million.

"The Sunspace issue is now resolved … and we are now firming up the specifications, and confirming whether it meets users' requirements,” said Malinga. Denel Spaceteq would be developing the earth observation satellite.

Repeated attempts to get comment from Denel were unsuccessful.

Sarah Wild

Sarah Wild

Sarah Wild is a multiaward-winning science journalist. She studied physics, electronics and English literature at Rhodes University in an effort to make herself unemployable. It didn't work and she now writes about particle physics, cosmology and everything in between.In 2012, she published her first full-length non-fiction book Searching African Skies: The Square Kilometre Array and South Africa's Quest to Hear the Songs of the Stars, and in 2013 she was named the best science journalist in Africa by Siemens in their 2013 Pan-African Profiles Awards. Read more from Sarah Wild

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