The Democratic Alliance (DA) has slammed the Cabinet’s approval of the department of science & technology’s proposed acquisition of a share of between 55% and 60% of local commercial satellite manufacturer, SunSpace.
The transaction, approved in February this year, is estimated to be worth R100m.
The DA’s shadow minister for science and technology, Marian Shinn, has also criticised the department for not disclosing how much money it has spent on getting SA’s second satellite, SumbandilaSat, off the ground.
According to the initial cost structures released by the department, the satellite cost more than R20m to build and R12m to launch.
However, Shinn says she is looking for a more comprehensive breakdown of the cost. “Minister of Science and Technology Naledi Pandor has dodged the opportunity to be transparent with the public about the actual costs of the programme,” she says.
SumbandilaSat was built by SunSpace as part of the department’s integrated satellite development project, which started in 2005. The satellite is equipped with a high-resolution camera that is used to monitor agriculture and map infrastructure and the use of land use across the country.
However, Shinn says the project has been riddled with problems and the satellite has permanent damage which “compromises its capability to deliver”.
“The DA does not see why public money should be invested in a satellite manufacturing company that has been unable to deliver a robust working vehicle,” she says.
The department was not available for comment. However, Pandor has previously said that government’s investment in the satellite business and SumbandilaSat will boost SA’s capabilities in science and technology.
Shinn now wants the department to detail the costs related to SumbandilaSat and explain why the satellite isn’t operating at full functionality.
SunSpace has hit back at Shinn, saying the project is delivering on its promises, despite some glitches in the satellite hardware.
“There is one bank of sensors that is not working, but the other one is working perfectly,” says Sunspace business development director, Ron Olivier.
He says that the problems SumbandilaSat has experienced since its launch are no different to the troubles that other satellites have encountered. “A R1bn satellite will also have technical troubles,” he says.
Olivier says the department has not yet made its investment in the business.
However, he says it has completed the due diligence process which is being reviewed by the National Space Agency, the government body that manages SA’s space research.
“The department is deciding how to take the process forward. These processes take time,” he says.
According to Olivier, the department’s investment in SunSpace is not misplaced. “SumbandilaSat is only the beginning. We are also participating in the build of a joint-venture satellite with India and Brazil,” he says.
The first images were received from SumbandilaSat in February this year. — Candice Jones, TechCentral