Reaching for the Stars at SciFest Africa

Model satellites at the Canada in Space exhibition

High Commissioner Barban meets Mandla Maseko who, in 2015, is to become the first black African to travel to space.

High Commissioner Barban discusses Canada’s rich aerospace history.

Dr. Thomas Auf der Heyde, Deputy Director General of the Department of Science & Technology, looks in amazement at the RADARSAT image of Canada. (Credit: Jason Hudson).

High School students learn about the use of satellite mapping in defence applications.

High School students admire the beautiful exhibition photos.

SciFest Africa is an annual science festival that takes place in Grahamstown, South Africa. With over 500 lectures, exhibitions and interactive activities taking place over the course of a week, SciFest is the largest festival of its kind in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Canada participated in the festival for the first time this year, contributing an exhibition and a lecture, in addition to bringing scientists together to share knowledge.

Promoting youth development, higher education, and science and technology are among Canada’s top priorities in South Africa. SciFest was a great opportunity to help secure the option for children and youth to pursue a future career in Africa’s burgeoning science and technology fields.

50 years of Canadian space exploration

The art gallery in the festival’s main venue featured an exhibition celebrating Canada’s history in space. First displayed in Washington D.C. in 2012, the exhibition highlights Canadian capabilities in the space industry and, more broadly, in science and technology.

“From building railways and airplanes and from establishing telephone and radio networks, Canada’s need to overcome distance and geography has led it to build and be a leader from satellites to space stations.” – High Commissioner Gaston Barban

When it launched its first scientific satellite in September 1962, Canada became the first nation after the USSR and the USA to design and manufacture its own satellite. The launch marked Canada’s entry into the space age and since that time, Canada has excelled in the area of atmospheric sciences, communications, robotics, remote sensing and advanced technologies that support space exploration.

Today, Canada’s space industry employs about 8000 highly skilled men and women.

Second-generation Canadian space robotics technology has been critical to the building, maintenance and ongoing operations of the International Space Station (ISS). 75% of the ISS was built using the Canadarm2.

Looking into the near future, the RADARSAT Constellation Mission is a fleet of three sophisticated remote-sensing satellites that will monitor all of Canada’s land and ocean territories and 95% of the world’s surface.

Cassiope: the Super Storm Chaser

To complement the exhibition, Dr. Andrew Yau of the University of Calgary delivered a lecture on the hybrid satellite Cassiope, which is making a significant contribution to unraveling the mysteries of space weather.

But it was not only the attendees of SciFest who had the opportunity to learn about Cassiope from Dr. Yau. Canada also organized a lecture at the Mae Jemison Reading Room in Mamelodi township to a group of disadvantaged high school students from the area.

In addition, Dr. Yau connected with academics at the University of Pretoria who work with the South African National Space Agency and who were interested in tapping into his expertise on a specialized radiation sensor they are developing for a small satellite.

Canada’s presence at SciFest was a great opportunity for Dr. Yau to make new connections and renew existing scientific contacts which could lead to fascinating inter-university collaborations in the future.

Dawn of the Afronaut

At the exhibition’s opening, High Commissioner Gaston Barban discussed the rich elements of Canada’s aerospace history, and drew attention to commonalities between South Africa and Canada with regards to our relationship with space travel.

“Events like these, where you can showcase such truly impressive projects like the Square Kilometre Array, nano satellites and the Southern African Large Telescope, to name a few, serve to correct misconceptions and turn the world’s eyes to Africa and to South Africa to see what is being accomplished and what will be achieved by African scientists and technologists in this decade.” – High Commissioner Gaston Barban

High Commissioner Barban also had the opportunity to meet Mandla Maseko, a former civil engineering student and self-styled “afronaut” who is set to become the first black South African to go into space.

Maseko won a seat on a 2015 space flight after completing aptitude tests in a contest organised by AXE Apollo Space Academy, Unilever and Space Expedition Corporation.

Maseko’s story signals the beginning of an exciting time in space exploration. Canada’s new Space Policy Framework launches the next chapter of Canada’s history in space, in which we will continue with our commitment to the International Space Station, to working with other countries on major space projects, and to the advancement of knowledge for generations to come.