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Bonnievale sets its sights on space technology

Students from Bonnievale High School helped build the first meteor detection cameras in South Africa linked to the Global Meteor Network. The two cameras were successfully linked, and daily meteor stacks can be view at This was carried out as part of a learner development programme under the mentorship of Nawaz Mahomed and Llewellyn Cupido from the Department of Mechanical and Mechatronic Engineering, and funded by the Chinese Academy of Sciences within the ASTRONOC initiative on optical tracking of space objects. The aim of the learner programme is to nurture an interest in space related technology to encourage students to study towards related engineering disciplines.  The learners are also taught how to track satellites using software and catalogues, telescope operation, as well as some basic orbital mechanics.


The meteor detection cameras are based at the ASTRONOC Space Object Optical Tracking station situated on a farm called Elethu, a 100% black-owned wine farm, founded on land donated by the Langeberg Local Municipality to the Bonnievale Workers Empowerment Trust in 2007. This is the first locally operated fully-functional optical tracking and cataloguing facility for satellite and space debris in Southern Africa, a fully privately-funded and owned initiative registered with the South African Council for Space Affairs.  It was completed in October 2020, in partnership with the Purple Mountain Observatory, a member of the Chinese Academy of Science, and the Keldysh Institute of Applied Mathematics, a member of the International Scientific Optical Network, driven by the need to compliment Northern Hemisphere tracking stations with access to observation data in the Southern Hemisphere.


The aim of the initiative is to develop a local capability in Space Situational Awareness, in line with the United Nations Space Debris Mitigation Guidelines, which are aimed at a global effort towards “Preserving the Space Environment and the Responsible Use of Space” and “Fostering the Development of Space Collision Warning Measures”.  The research areas include orbital mechanics, astrometry, and conjunction prediction and analysis.  The facility provides access to an integrated system of hardware and software for carrying out optical tracking. The observatory also has a full weather station accessible to the public, which include cloud cover and sky quality measurements, as well as a live all-sky camera. The live weather conditions, all-sky camera and in-dome camera can be viewed via the website (scroll to the bottom).


The effect of space debris (rocket bodies, defunct satellites, fragments) on existing space activities is attracting increasing attention globally (e.g. RemoveSpaceDebris Mission of ESA; Astroscale). Hence, the study of the motion and evolution of space debris, and the development of knowledge related to the astrodynamics and mechanics of non-celestial bodies in space, has become an important research focus, prompting the need for observation facilities.


The research efforts are still at an early stage. In November 2021, we managed to track the close approach of Asteroid 2019 XS, and contributed our data to the “International Asteroid Warning Network Timing Campaign: 2019 XS”, which was published in the Planetary Science Journal in July 2022. This capability will be enhanced in 2023 through the addition of a dual-tube telescope for asteroid research, complementing the current two wide field-of-view telescopes.