Space: South Africa Gets Screwed


February 7, 2015: In December 2014 a Russian RS-18/SS-19 rocket was used to launch a photo-reconnaissance satellite for South Africa. This cost South Africa $120 million and caused an uproar in South Africa when Russia announced the launch and success in putting the satellite into orbit. The uproar was over the fact that most South African politicians believed this project had been cancelled as unnecessary and too expensive in 2007. That cancellation was quietly reversed and the project went ahead.

The new photo-satellite can take pictures day or night and make out objects 150cm (58 inches) across. By current standards that’s not very good. Back in the mid-1970s the U.S. was launching satellites with a resolution of 7 cm and current high-res satellite cameras can detect objects as small as 2 cm (less than an inch across). F0r mapping the lower res satellites are OK and in the mid-80s the U.S. was putting such satellites up that had a resolution of 70cm. These could take pictures of large areas.

What really has South African politicians agitated is the fact that South Africa’s satellite photo needs can be taken care of by commercial satellites that will provide photos of whatever you want at whatever resolution you need. It is estimated that South Africa does not have to spend more than a few million dollars a year on such services. It is believed that the South African satellite, which is not even controlled by South Africa (but by Russia) was seen by some senior government and military officials as another opportunity to make some money (via bribes from the Russian satellite provider.) The new satellite will provide photos at a cost that is more than three times what commercial services can provide.

Russia did the job, and kept is quiet, because they need the business. While their larger RS-20 rocket has a max satellite payload of nearly three tons Russia also about a hundred of the smaller 106 ton RS-18/SS-19 ICBMS available for launching satellites. These retired ICBMs have proved economical and popular for launching the growing number of highly capable but lightweight satellites. In August 2013 a RS-18 launched a South Korean 1.4 ton KOMPSAT 5 satellite that uses a radar that can detect objects and landforms as small as one meter (39 inches) across. This satellite is mainly for obtaining geographic (land and sea) information and supporting disaster response and environmental monitoring. While the satellite was new tech, the launcher was 1970s technology that was affordable and reliable because it was military surplus. This is what initially attracted the attention of some South African politicians and led to more business for Russia and another corruption scandal for South Africa.




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