Dr Peter Martinez is the coordinator for the National Working Group on Space and Technology for the Republic of South Africa. Cape Town hosted IAC2011.

Dr Martinez, the South Africa Space Agency Workshop was held in Grabouw in early December 2006. One of its aims was to discuss the establishment of a South Africa Space Agency. How important is it for the country to have its own space agency?

Space is part of the plumbing of modern life. South Africa, like every other country, is critically reliant on space-based systems for the day-to-day functioning of its society. Up until now, government support for space research and the applications of space technology in South Africa has taken place in a largely uncoordinated manner. A space agency will enable us to take a more coordinated approach to the application of space technnology to solve our country's development challenges. As an example of what I mean, at the moment, South African government agencies at the local, provincial and national level are making considerable purchases of space-derived Earth observation data. The same images are being purchased by different agencies of Government. A space agency will allow us to negotiate more comprehensive and cost-effective arrangements for the acquisition of space-derived geospatial data. From the perspective of international collaboration, the new space agency will provide a single point of contact in future for interactions with other space agencies.

South Africa has contributed to the development and exploitation of space technology since the dawn of the space age in the late 1950s. What have been the major achievements?

South Africa's involvement in the international space arena began in the late 1950s with the tracking of satellites. From 1961 to 1974 the former NASA Deep Space Station 51 at Hartebeesthoek supported a number of the early unmanned lunar and planetary exploration missions. The first Mariner IV image of Mars was received in South Africa on 15 July 1965, when Mars was almost overhead at Johannesburg. Another highlight was the support of the Apollo 15 lunar mission. South African scientists were also involved in the analysis of lunar samples in the 1970s. In the 1980s South Africa commenced a military space programme. The goal of this Cold War space programme was to develop and launch a surveillance satellite. The programme was terminated in 1994, but the facilities that were developed for this programme are still in existence and could be used to support the new civilian space programme. In 1999 the Sunsat microsatellite was launched as a secondary payload on an American Delta II rocket. This 64-kg satellite, built by the faculty and students of the electrical engineering department at the University of Stellenbosch, had some innovative developments in terms of introducing capabilities onto a microsatellite platform. The Sunsat mission was a University project that took place in the absence of a national space programme, so it was not followed through with another satellite. The Southern African Large Telescope (SALT) was built from 2000-2005 by an international consortium of which South Africa is the major shareholder. With its primary mirror that spans 10 metres, SALT is the largest single optical telescope in the southern hemisphere. About 70% of the SALT project was built in South Africa. Buoyed by the technical success of building SALT, in 2003 the South African government registered an interest to host the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), a 1.3 billion Euro project to build the world's largest radio telescope. In September 2006, South Africa and Australia were announced as the two short-listed potential host locations for the SKA. The final decision on the siting of the SKA will be made towards the end of the decade. South Africa will launch its first national satellite, Sumbandila, next year. This microsatellite was built by the South African company Sunspace. The primary payload comprises an imager capable of 6.25-m resolution in six bands. The satellite also has a number of secondary experimental payloads. On the Earth observation front, in 2003 South Africa was selected as one of the co-Chairs of the Group on Earth Observations, and South Africa is due to host the secretariat of CEOS in 2008. These experiences will enhance the utilisation of the Earth observation data in South Africa.

SunSpace was the first South African member of the IAF. How important is international cooperation to the South African space industry?

International cooperation is very important, not only for the space industry in South Africa, but for all sectors of the South African space arena. We already have a long history of involvement by a number of players in international collaborative ventures in the global space arena. The new space agency will build on existing collaborations and will also seek out new ones. I would therefore expect to see a few more South African entities joining the IAF in the coming years.

South Africa is a leader, amongst other fields, in the development of ground stations and tracking technology alongside the development of satellites. What are the longer term plans for South Africa in space?

The South African national space programme is still under development, so it is not possible for me to give a detailed answer to your question at this stage. Instead I can give a personal perspective on the way I see things developing. We will not pursue a space programme simply for the sake of being involved in the global space arena, but rather to use space as a tool to support our national development imperatives. This thinking will guide our national space programme, and will define the balance between the procurement of space-derived data and services and the enhancement of our local technological and industrial capacity to develop and utilise space systems, either by ourselves, or in cooperation with international partners. Although our space programme will be primarily applications oriented, I would also expect a component of purely scientific research and exploration activities.