As South Africans, many of us don’t even know that we have a space program, so we’re especially proud of our locally built satellites. The most recent was Sumbandilasat, an Earth Observation micro-satellite operated jointly by the CSIR, the University of Stellenbosch and SunSat (A local company which designs and builds satellites).Sumbandilasat was launched in September 2009, on a Soyuz-2 launch vehicle from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, and was built to a budget using off-the-shelf components wherever possible. Although this approach allowed costs to be kept extremely low (for a satellite of its class…), it left the satellite with insufficient radiation hardening, with the consequences becoming apparent shortly after launch. A solar flare damaged the power distribution network, crippling two of the attitude control wheels and leaving the satellite in an uncorrectable tumble. Despite this, operators were able to synchronise the ground-facing cameras to succesfully return high-resolution images of the Earth. Even considering the fragility of the satellite, SunSat declared the mission a success since, after all, it was only ever designed as a technology demonstrator. According to SunSpace engineer Niki Steenkamp, the satellite has been an enormous success and has survived far longer than anticipated. Priceless information and experience has been gained through the satellite, experience that can only comes from actually building and launching a satellite.
But over time, radiation from continued solar events have damaged more and more systems until the recent announcement that Sumbandilasat was no longer able to perform its functions, and would be abandoned. No mention has been made regarding parking the satellite in a graveyard orbit (to avoid contributing to the growing problem of orbital debris), so presumably the uncontrolled tumbling has made such maneuvres impossible. Nevertheless, certain non-critical functions (including an repeater built for ham radio use) are still working, and might likely continue to operate for the foreseeable future.