July 31, 2006

S.Africa aims for stars with space agency

By Ed Stoddard

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - South Africa is aiming for the stars with plans to launch a space agency to promote cutting edge technology, including satellite development, on the world's poorest continent, a senior government official said on Monday.

"We hope the space agency will be off the ground within a year. It is still being planned," said Pontsho Maruping, the chief director responsible for frontier programs in South Africa's Department of Science and Technology.

"It will be responsible for coordinating all space science and technology activities and it will support the development of new technologies," she told Reuters in a telephone interview.

The South African cabinet last week gave the preliminary green light for the agency. The science department still needs to come back to the cabinet with proposals for the structure and any funding that will be required.

"This is not just about prestige. There is a recognition that space is an essential tool for decision making and it is a useful tool for developing countries," she said.

South Africa is already a global leader in the field of astronomy. It is home to the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT), which can probe deep into space.

But its space agency will not be the first on the continent. It was beaten in this "space race" by Nigeria, which launched its own space agency five years ago in a bid to develop satellite technology and identify areas for mining.

Maruping said South Africa was planning to launch its first operational micro-satellite from Russia in December. She said this followed the launch a decade ago of an experimental satellite developed by South African students.

"The satellite is being developed and manufactured in South Africa by a local company called SunSpace. In the short term we have no plans to launch satellites from here but we want to continue to develop satellites," she said.

"South Africa already has satellite tracking facilities which we will have to upgrade because we will need to have our own command and control facilities. This will fall under the space agency," she said.

The satellite will be used to download images of South Africa from space to help policymakers study land use patterns and make decisions regarding infrastructure plans.

Satellite imagery can be used to measure a range of factors affecting development including the pace of deforestation.