Spotlight TEDx Talk: A mission to launch African nanosatellites

A member of the French South African Institute of Technology CubeSat team assembles their first nanosatellite (Photo: Robert van Zyl)

Members of the French South African Institute of Technology CubeSat team assembles their first nanosatellite (Photo: Robert van Zyl)

Right now, a satellite only 10 cm wide and 10 cm tall circles our planet around 15 times a day, in flight thanks to a group of students at the French South African Institute of Technology in Cape Town. The tiny satellite, named “TshepisoSat” for the seSotho word for “hope and promise,” has been in orbit for over two years, taking photos of the Earth and collecting data on radio waves in the ionosphere.

An image of TshepisoSat before its launch in November 2013 (Photo: Robert van Zyl)

An image of TshepisoSat before its launch in November 2013 (Photo: Robert van Zyl)

A selection of photos taken by TshepisoSat since its launch (Photo by Leon, @)

A selection of photos taken by TshepisoSat since its launch (Photo by Leon Steenkamp, ‏@leonsteenkamp)

TshepisoSat is a member of a new class of super-compact satellites called CubeSats that run on the same technology as consumer electronics like smartphones and digital cameras, says TshepisoSat project lead Robert van Zyl at TEDxTableMountain in Cape Town. And despite their small size, these satellites have had a big impact on astronomy and engineering, van Zyl says. “[CubeSats] open up a whole plethora of [scientific and practical] applications that were not feasible previously,” van Zyl says. Unlike the clunky satellites of the Sputnik era, CubeSats can be launched fairly easily, allowing teams to create “flocks” of satellites that image the Earth and parts of solar system at a near-constant rate, he says. These flocks of CubeSats can track ships; communicate weather conditions and landscape changes; document solar influence on technology and many, many other things.

An image of TshepisoSat's innards before launch (Photo: Robert van Zyl)

An image of TshepisoSat’s innards before launch (Photo: Robert van Zyl)

The first photo taken by TshepisoSat

The first photo taken by TshepisoSat (Photo: French South African Institute of Technology)

But what really excites van Zyl is the potential for CubeSats to inspire a whole new generation to get involved in STEM fields and scientific research. TshepisoSat is Africa’s first nanosatellite, van Zyl explains, and it was created by students, not professional researchers. “CubeSats are winning over the youth to the space sector,” van Zyl told the Mail & Guardian in August 2015. “By being cheaper to build and launch into space, they provide a cost-effective platform for training and research, especially for countries where a heavy investment in a space industry has to be weighed against more immediate needs such as health and welfare.”

The TshepisoSat team (Photo: Robert van Zyl)

The TshepisoSat team (Photo: Robert van Zyl)

van Zyl wants nanosatellite production and research to extend beyond his team and beyond his country to students in other areas of Africa. “I believe we have a technology that we can foster and nurture to kickstart and catapult a space industry in Africa led by our youngsters,” he says in his talk. “We need to encourage our young to take up STEM.”

One way to do that? TshepisoSat, van Zyl says, which is why the satellite has a moniker meaning “hope and promise,” a name provided by a 9th grade student.

To learn more about the TshepisoSat project, watch van Zyl’s whole talk below:

Insight from the TEDx office — why we like this talk:

The speaker is an educator and an accredited engineer who acts as the director of the French South African Institute of Technology at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology in South Africa. He gives an informative, interesting talk on the use of nano-satellites as a research and teaching tool and supports his idea — that space research doesn’t have to be exceedingly expensive or massive to succeed — through concrete examples, images and humor.

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