All eyes on earth, from up in space

Stellenbosch is becoming known as the innovation hub of South Africa’s space industry, reveals RICHARD HOLMES, with companies like Dragonfly Aerospace reaching for the stars …

Members of the Dragonfly Aerospace family at their Technopark home.

WHEN YOU STOP to think about it, it’s really quite remarkable. Right now, above your head, some 10000 satellites are whirling through space. Although most of us barely give them a moment’s thought, without them so much of our daily lives would cease to function. Whether it’s that fitness watch tracking your run, the weather forecast you check on the way to work, or a just-in-time delivery keeping grocery shelves stocked, we’ve come to rely on satellites more than ever.

Just a few minutes’ drive from central Stellenbosch, Dragonfly Aerospace is boldly going where no local company has gone before, designing and building next-generation satellites for launch into outer space. It was founded in 2020 by a team of senior engineers who came together to combine their decades of experience in the satellite and aerospace industries. This includes ground-breaking work on the GreenSat, SunSat and SumbandilaSat projects, and in just three years the company has grown from 15 employees to a team of 64, ranging from software programmers to electro-optical engineers.

SunSat was the first satellite built in South Africa, at Stellenbosch University, to make it into orbit, blasting off in 1999 from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Positioned in a low-earth orbit at an altitude of between 620km and 850km above the earth, SunSat carried NASA experiments, amateur radio communications and a high- resolution imager as it circled the globe once every 100 minutes, travelling at a speed of almost 27000km/h.

Dragonfly Aerospace operates from an impressive 3 000m2 facility in Technopark on the outskirts of Stellenbosch. It is right next to the building used for the design of GreenSat (an early 1990s satellite project) and later used for the manufacture of solar pan- els. The facility’s complex of clean rooms and vacuum chambers was a perfect fit for an aerospace company with big ambitions in the design and manufacture of both space components and fully functioning satellites.

Dragonfly co-founders Kannas Wiid (left) and Hans van der Merwe.

“Until now, our area of focus has been imaging. Our components are highly respected, and we’ve recently shown that we’re able to bring them all together into a working satellite,” says Hans van der Merwe, the chief technology officer. “With the size and scope of our current facility, we are able to construct up to six satellites at any one time.”

Dragonfly Aerospace also taps into the skills of manufacturing and engineering industries across the Cape, using numerous locally made components. The company’s on-site team of engineers is responsible for the full life cycle of a satellite, from computer-assisted design and software programming to manufacturing, construction, preparation for launch and operations in space.

The company’s key focus is in the realm of micro-satellites, which range in weight from 80kg to 600kg. And for many applications, less is definitely more. “They can perform the same functions as a NASA or European Space Agency satellite weighing two or three tons and costing hundreds of millions of dollars to develop and build and send into space,” says satellite system engineer Kannas Wiid.

The most recent satellite to emerge from Dragonfly’s construction bay was a watershed moment for the company and a landmark project for South Africa’s aerospace industry as a whole. Blasting off atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 launch vehicle in January 2023, EOS SAT-1 was the first South African-built satellite in 14 years to go into space. Although local aerospace expertise was already highly respected for the quality of its imaging components, the successful launch of EOS SAT-1 shows its depth in the design and construction of fully functioning low-earth orbit satellites.

The client for EOS SAT-1 was EOS Data Analytics, which pro- cesses imaging data using proprietary algorithms to create an array of products and geo-analysis for clients ranging from commercial forestry to large-scale agriculture. That’s thanks to the remarkable onboard dual high-resolution DragonEye cameras.

“Our eyes can see in three colours, but our cameras on EOS SAT-1 can see in 11 colours, and that enables us to make out various issues in agriculture. They can also be used for crop and yield prediction,” explains Kannas.

While this shift to so-called ‘precision agriculture’ is often used to increase productivity, there are serious sustainability advantages too. The use of satellite data can help farmers avoid the over-use of pesticides, decrease water and energy consumption and adapt to a changing climate. Imaging from space can also be used to protect oceans from over-fishing. While conventional radar struggles to see beyond the horizon, satellite-based radar is capable of scanning vast areas of the ocean for vessels fishing illegally.

EOS SAT-1 in the SpaceX integration clean room. The “digital twin” of EOS SAT-1 is used to test and validate software updates before these are sent to the flight satellite in orbit. The SpaceX Falcon-9 rocket launch in January this year.

“We provide the same type of data that a two-ton satellite would offer, and that’s where we come in as a preferred supplier,” says Hans. “We can be more cost effective and launch in a shorter time period.” They are also considerably more competitive, with EOS SAT-1 costing a few million dollars, a fraction of the cost of larger satellites.

EOS SAT-1 is just the start of an exciting new period for Dragonfly Aerospace. Planning and design are already under way for a further six EOS satellites to be built and sent into orbit, with the goal of covering the entire surface of the earth within a single day.

“EOS SAT-1 is in what’s called a sun-synchronous orbit,” explains Kannas. “So the satellite always sees the sun at the same angle, and with one satellite you only pass over the same place on earth every six days. By adding more satellites and putting them into a different orbit, you can cover those areas in a shorter time.”

It’s a bold plan that can only be a boon for South Africa’s small, but respected aerospace industry. And for this ambitious Stellenbosch innovator, it’s one small step on a journey to the stars.