Jay CabozBy Jay Caboz|April 13, 2021|6 Minutes|In Billionaire Tomorrow

Billionaire Tomorrow

We have lift off!

Africa leaps into the Space Race.

It took two failed attempts for a rocket to blast off in the middle of nowhere to give Africa a huge leap forward in the space race.


While South African born billionaire Elon Musk is readying his rockets for space, back home in Africa scientists are celebrating a third time lucky lift off that is going to propel the continent forward in the space race.

The countdown begins. 10…9…8…: a team of scientists from the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s Aerospace Systems Research Group (ASReG), in South Africa, stands anxiously in front of a control panel watching the numbers change. The air is charged with excitement as the final checks are made and the African space programme prepares to blast off.

On the screens in front of them is something unique– a home-grown rocket, one of the first of its kind to be built in Africa. It stands in the middle of the Denel Overberg Test Range, found in the Western Cape’s Overberg region, a few hours drive from Cape Town and a million miles from Cape Canaveral.

It has a yellow cone, black shaft, and white tail stands out in the flat rugged terrain of the Cape.

They call it the Phoenix-1B Mark IIr and like all sounding rockets it takes its name from the nautical term “to sound”. Like its name suggests, sounding rockets carry payloads that penetrate the upper atmosphere of Earth to take measurements. Onboard they can carry payloads of instruments meant to bring information about the Earth’s atmosphere and space. They are also the first port of call to test cheaply whether equipment can handle the rigours of space.  Often, they will only fly about 30 minutes, enough time to collect important scientific data and conduct engineering tests.

The Phoenix-1B Mark IIr is a little more special. Inside are unique hybrid rocket motors, designed by ASReG to combust from a combination of liquid and solid propellants. In theory, this means the fuel is more stable, meaning research instruments are less likely to blow up during launch, and making it safer to work with in a university environment.

As the numbers tick down, it is a tense moment for the ASReG team that has spent almost 11 years working on it.

A successful launch would be a giant leap for the African business of space.

The team have been here twice before without much luck. The first Phoenix-1A, was flight tested in 2014, but experienced a nozzle failure once airborne. The second, Phoenix-1B Mark, reached about 20 metres before plummeting back to earth and exploding in a ball of smoke – this time from a software fault in the code that controlled the opening and closing of the main oxidizer.

On this overcast day, the research team from ASReG remains hopeful it will be third time lucky.

The numbers slowly tick down 3… 2 … 1…lift off. The Phoenix-1B Mark IIr shoots off with a single flame and a billow of smoke. In a matter of seconds, it is flying high on its way to reaching a velocity of twice the speed of sound. It flies 17,9 kilometres (km) hurtling over the Atlantic Ocean and into history, smashing an African hybrid rocket altitude record.

The successful launch on this day in March is a massive steppingstone for Africa, demonstrating that African is ready to join the space race.

According to the South Africa’s Department of Science and Innovation (DSI) that funded the collaboration of industry and students, disruptive satellite technology trends are reshaping the traditional launch market. By leveraging launch technologies African can benefit from a reduced cost and complexity. It cuts out the need for African scientists to contract international launch services, operated out of countries like Sweden, Norway, Brazil, Australia, the United States and Japan.

“The target market is commercial small satellite launches with payload of 200kg to an altitude of 500km, and sounding rocket launches into space from Overberg Test Range,” said Dr Mmboneni Muofhe, the DSI Deputy Director-General of Technology Innovation.

“This is a game-changer for South African space science and positions the country to take the lead on the continent in the development of rocket launch capabilities,” said Dr Blade Nzimande, South African Minister of Higher Education, Science and Innovation.

The programme started as far back as 2010, and several students have gone on to work in key technical positions at companies like Armscor, Milkor and Rheinmetall Denel Munition.

Surely an opportunity for young African entrepreneurs to launch their own careers.

"The target market is commercial small satellite launches with payload of 200kg to an altitude of 500km, and sounding rocket launches into space from Overberg Test Range, said Dr Mmboneni Muofhe, the DSI Deputy Director-General of Technology Innovation"

Image Credits: University of KwaZulu-Natal’s Aerospace Systems Research Group