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By John Helmer in Moscow

Russia’s space agency Roskosmos has agreed to launch the South African Sunbandila satellite by the end of this year at the Baikonour cosmodrome, Roskosmos sources have told Business Day. They confirm earlier statements by Foreign Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma that an earlier controversy over launch agreements between the two governments for rocketing both a civilian and a military satellite into space had been resolved.

One mystery remains, however. According to sources in Moscow, in the negotiations to resume the Sumbandila launch, the SA government agreed to permit the establishment of a Russian telemetry receiving and rocket tracking station on SA territory. However, the sources now say there is no agreement on this station, and it is not clear why.

Dlamini-Zuma said in May, during a visit to Moscow, that she and her Russian counterparts had resolved their differences on the satellite launch problem, and that she hoped to “see the launch of the satellite by the end of this year.” Ronnie Mamoepa, the Minister’s spokesman, told Business Day/Weekender that resolution of delays and disputes over the satellite launch had been the “priority” of the minister’s visit to Moscow at the time. The Russian text of the protocol, which Dlamini-Zuma and Yury Trutnev, Russia’s Minister of Natural Resources, signed on May 23 set a deadline of July “to finish consultations to find the solution to the problems connected to the launch of the satellite ZA-002”. Asked about the nature of the problems causing the delays, Mamoepa claimed they were technical ones.

In February, BD had reported Roskosmos sources as claiming the civilian satellite launch plan had been halted after SA decided to cancel a parallel agreement for Russia to launch a military communications and reconnaissance satellite SA had ordered. Anatoly Perminov, head of Roskosmos, publicly revealed what appeared at the time to be tit-for-tat between Pretoria and Moscow. “Unfortunately, the Russian Defence Ministry refused to launch this satellite”, Perminov said, referring to Sumbandila, “as the South African Defence Ministry for its turn refused to use our satellite. The two countries’ defence ministries decided to go their own way, and we did not interfere in these affairs. Today there is no opportunity for the [civilian satellite] launch.” Perminov’s spokesman added, in clarification to BD, that the Roskosmos action was the consequence of the prior cancellation by the SA Defence Ministry, but he declined to go into further detail.

This week, Vyacheslav Mikhailchenko, spokesman for Roskosmos, told BD that an agreement is now in place for the Sumbandila launch to take place. The timing, he said, is likely to be between December 25 of this year and March 25, 2009; and will depend on the launching schedule at Baikonour. “Agreement on launch of the satellite was reached, and now the specialists are working on the technical issues. The launch will run in compliance with a governmental decree, which is being prepared now. There are technical questions, and since both parties have reached an agreement, this decree is a purely technical procedure the Russian side is obliged to resolve.”

Participants on the SA side in the launch agreement are the SA Department of Science and Technology and SunSpace and Information Systems, a Stellenbosch-based firm which built SumbandilaSat.

The original launch plan called for Sunbandila to be sent into space from a Russian Navy submarine, firing a converted Shtil ballistic missile from a location in the Barents Sea. When Perminov confirmed last month that Sundandila will go up at the same time as a new Russian meteorological satellite, there was no explanation of why the Shtil rocket launch had been abandoned in favour of Baikonour and the Soyuz-2 rocket system.

A Roskomsos source noted that, in parallel with the Sumbandila project, Roskosmos had negotiated SA permission to set up a telemetry station in SA for receiving rocket performance data from Roskosmos launches. The source denied there is an “exchange” conditioning Russia’s agreement on the satellite launch to SA agreement accepting the telemetry station. But the Russian sources are unclear on whether the telemetry station plan will go ahead, and if not, why. Roskosmos told BD that the “SA side authorized the placement of this station. It happened during the talks with the SA side, but it is not in the [Sunbandila] contract. We are still considering whether this station is necessary.”

A source at the Russian Defence Ministry said the telemetry station is not of interest to them.
Roskosmos also denied an SA report, claiming the Subandila launch will be a financial lossmaker for Roskosmos, and is being done as a gesture of political support to the SA government. “I don’t think this information is correct,” Mikhailchenko of Roskosmos told BD.

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