Developed by students at South Africa’s Stellenbosch University and local space technology firm SunSpace, the “SumbandilaSat” micro-satellite, took off from Kazakhstan’s Baikonur cosmodrome on 17 September.
Pictures of the momentous event were streamed live over the internet and South Africa’s Science and Technology Minister, Naledi Pandor, was in Kazakhstan for the launch.
Taking its name from the Venda word meaning “pioneer”, the SumbandilaSat will gather crucial information about weather patterns and how climate change is affecting Africa.
It heralds a huge milestone in Africa’s space ambitions. Experts predict that before too long similar projects will be underway, at the cutting edge of communications and even defence.
While the SumbandilaSat was funded by the South African government, it was developed by the Sunspace lab, a commercial firm on the Western Cape that develops satellite technology, mostly for the telecoms and agriculture industries.
“We take off the shelf, technologies, putting them together cheaply efficiently, quickly and in such a way that our customers are able, with a small product, to outperform... the traditional space models,” explains Ron Oliver, managing director of Sunspace.
But despite the huge strides Africa’s space technology industry has made in recent years, it faces big problems.
As well as lack of infrastructure and funding, employers complain of a desperate shortage of trained staff.
Until the end of apartheid, university courses in science subjects were open to whites only.
Sunspace has begun a programme of positive discrimination to address the skills gap.
Jessie Ndaba, an engineering graduate, is one of the first to benefit.
“I’ve always wanted to be a rocket engine designer,” she says.
“But growing up in Soweto, I didn’t think that was possible because I didn’t know if there were any space activities going on in South Africa, so I ended up doing electrical engineering.
“If I had been exposed to what is happening I would have taken a different path”.
However, Africa’s bid to join the space race has attracted criticism.
The SumbandilaSat alone cost $3.5bn (£2.2bn) to develop, and had to piggyback onto a Russian rocket to enter orbit.
With the South African economy in deep recession, unemployment at 22% and millions still living in shanty towns, opposition politicians claim that money could be better spent elsewhere.
But the ruling ANC believes sustained investment in a space satellite programme is a calculated risk, which, if it pays off, could benefit millions of Africans, both in terms of jobs and getting the information the continent needs to plan for a more stable and prosperous future.