To boldly go

  • Control Academy rover sitting atop a lander at the start of simulated Mars mission. Page background: Mars as seen by NASA’s Curiosity rover.
  • UCT student “astronauts” remotely pilot a Mars rover during a simulation.
Date:31 January 2018 Tags:, ,

Africa’s stillborn space programme has been rebooted and our next generation of space scientists is lifting off.

Deadly 300KM/h dust storm and an eight-minute lag in communications were just two of the hazards faced by University of Cape Town students piloting a NASA Mars Rover last August. Fortunately, it was all part of a virtual mission, the first of its kind undertaken in Africa.

The students are all space science master’s students associated with UCT’s Spacelab. The Mars rover mission was facilitated by Ewan Reid, lead designer on three rover prototypes for the Canadian Space Agency and mission controller for nine of NASA’s shuttle missions, and was held in collaboration with Mission Control Space Services, a technology development company and consultancy in the space sector.

According UCT News, Mission Control has been touring select universities around the world, giving students the chance to pilot the rovers and acting as a dry run for Mission Control’s actual outer space explorations. On the recent UCT event, the scenario involved a spacecraft orbiting Mars while the rover traversed a Mars-like terrain at the Canadian Space Agency outside Montreal.

Their mission was to find a safe spot to land. All the while, Reid was in constant contact with the student “astronauts” and a scientific team at the testing site in Montreal. By the way, the actual “driving” of the rover was done by Xbox controller.

With the rover engulfed in the simulated 300 km/h dust storm, the team apparently acquitted themselves well despite being forced to feel their way around the last minutes of the mission purely by LIDAR when the rover cameras suffered an unplanned failure. “In the end”, says UCT News, “the astronauts found two possible landing spots, and their mission was accomplished.”

Professor Peter Martinez established Spacelab at UCT and the postgrad programme has been running since 2014. The intention, says Martinez, was to provide a broad introduction into space and space technology. “In the first year, given that most of our students don’t have a background in space, they do common courses and then the second year they do a dissertation and they go into various aspects.”

The UCT programme is growing in popularity and has students from a number of African countries, Europe and the USA. “It’s a unique programme on the African continent,” Martinez says. “Many postgraduate space programmes will focus on the satellite engineering or the space applications aspects. By design, this one has been set up to be multi-disciplinary. We are still in a phase of our development where we need to have people who have a broad general background they can then take with them into government or industry and then develop a certain niche area. We have students working on a variety of things. Some are working on legal aspects, some on things like ‘what would it take to develop a microlauncher industry in South Africa’, we have got one working on the potential of chemical processes for converting lunar regolith (sand) into photovoltaic material, because if you are going to sustain a human presence on the Moon you will need power. And anything you can do to reduce the amount of mass you need to take to the Moon, the better. So if you can produce PV material on the Moon, that will help you a lot.”

Before joining the university, Martinez was quite involved with setting up the classified South African space programme that originated in the 1980s. That programme was driven by two main priorities: a need for reconnaissance satellites during the border war and a desire for nuclear capability. With the breakup of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, the military need for the programme went away.

“There was an incredible amount of industrial capability and knowledge built up, all of which languished for about 15 years or so. Those people have all been entering into retirement. We needed to get another cohort of people trained up,” says Martinez.

“The interesting thing is, that programme created infrastructure that, today, would be impossible for a country like South Africa to invest in. So today it is there and it is being slowly resuscitated for our space programme. It has a capacity that would be more than adequate for the foreseeable future and hopefully we can also offer it for other African countries.”

The attractive thing about the South African programme is cost. Just the course fee for an equivalent programme offered in Europe would cost 40 000 euros a year. “Our programme costs about the same in rand.”

His initial idea was to start a fund in South Africa to send students to Europe and to the States. “But when you start looking at the costs, and the numbers of people we need to train to replace all those old folks who are retiring, it’s just not viable. We need to train people here and essentially grow our own timber.”

According to UCT’s course information, the university’s MPhil in space studies (it can be upgraded to a PhD) provides a broad, multi-disciplinary introduction to the space sector, together with in-depth research in a topic of interest to each individual participant.

The university says space studies encompasses the study ofouter space and all aspects of space activities, whether of a purely scientific and exploratory nature, or of a utilitarian nature to improve the daily lives of people on Earth. Space applications are also a key contributor to sustainable development in areas such as food and water security, weather prediction, climate change monitoring, environmental resource management, disaster management, search-and-rescue, defence and peace-keeping,financial transactions, telemedicine and tele-education.

The programme is aimed at anyone who wishes to enter the space sector, or to deepen his or her knowledge of this sector. No prior knowledge of space technology is required or assumed. Potential participants include new graduates and young professionals seeking to enter the space sector and established professionals in military, government or private sector positions who encounter space science and technology issues in their day-to-day work and are seeking to acquire a broad knowledge of the space sector.

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