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Garth Milne ZR1AFH in Stellenbosch and Hans van de Groenendaal ZS5AKV in Hillcrest (KwaZulu-Natal) made history on Sunday March 14, 1999 when they made the first ever voice contact using SUNSAT. The voice quality was excellent and signals strong even when the satellite approached the horizon.

Sunsat , South Africa’s first satellite was launched on February 23 on a Delta rocket from Vandenberg Air Force base. The vision of starting a microsatellite originated with Prof Jan du Plessis and Prof Arnold Schoonwinkel in 1989.

Prof Garth Milne ZR1AFH became project leader. After some 18 months spent defining the project and seeking industry sponsors for the programme, , an Advisory Board was established on 27 June 1991 and the programme officially launched under the banner SUNSAT. Hans van de Groenendaal represented the South African Radio League and the Southern African Amateur Radio Satellite Association (SA AMSAT) on the Advisory Board.

The name SUNSAT closely associates the programme with the University (Stellenbosch University SATellite. This week SUNSAT also received its international designation” SUNSAT OSCAR 35. This designation is given to a satellite that carries one or more transmitters operating on ham frequencies. "The Amateur Radio services on SUNSAT are our ‘Thank you” to the Amateur Radio community for the legacy it has left for us all. We are honoured with SUNSAT’s recognition as an OSCAR.” Prof Garth Milne said.

Since its launch the satellite has been undergoing extensive testing by the ground control team situated at the University of Stellenbosch. Yesterday’s voice contact, testing the transponders on SUNSAT, is part of this programme that will continue for several more weeks before SUNSAT will be declared fully operational.

“ It was rewarding for the first test voice contact to be made by the Radio Amateurs who have been involved from the outset of the project 10 years ago”, SA AMSAT’s President Hans van de Groenendaal said.

“SUNSAT will play an important part in bringing Amateur Radio into the classroom as part of the ARISAS programme. ( Amateur Radio in South African Schools),” he said. ARISAS is aimed at using Amateur Radio in the classroom to expand the teaching of science and technology.

SUNSAT was built by students at the University of Stellenbosch who did the detailed design and software development while system level design was carried out by lecturers

“South Africa has an innovative electronics industry that wishes to benefit from new opportunities. It also needs competent technically trained people to establish and operate systems. The SUNSAT programme is a means of both increasing space segment knowledge in the country, establishing a satellite training capability and exposing the industries’ capabilities”’ Prof Garth Milne said. The SUNSAT programme has delivered over 50 students with Master of Engineering Degrees .

SUNSAT has several payloads with two of the focus areas on Amateur Radio and School Science projects. In addition SUNSAT carries two NASA experiments and an experimental pushbroom imager capable of taking pictures of the earth.

Two projects on SUNSAT were built by school groups:

The high resolution imager providing 50x50 km coverage will operate in real time on S band. These images can also be stored in the RAM disk and portions can be downloaded at lower speeds ( 9600 baud) for capturing by Radio Amateurs and in Schools.

The ground control station expects SUNSAT’s Amateur Payloads to be fully commissioned by mid April when Radio Amateurs world-wide will get access to the satellite while experiments will be continued by Engineers at the University of Stellenbosch.

© Electronic Systems Laboratory 1999
by Buchan Milne