Russia Launches South-Africa’s First Spy Satellite

Illustration of the Kondor-E satellite in orbit

Illustration of the Kondor-E satellite in orbit

Russia on Friday successfully launched South Africa’s first spy satellite into orbit for a murky defense project titled ‘Project Flute.’

“The 115-ton Strela launcher — a modified Soviet-era SS-19 ballistic missile — blasted out of an underground launch tube at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 0443 GMT Friday (11:43 p.m. EST),” reports Spaceflight Now.

The Kondor E satellite launched on Friday can see through clouds and take detailed pictures between 1 and 2 meters (3.3 feet and 6.5 feet) during the day and night.

MP David Maynier

MP David Maynier

South African opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, has been pushing for more information on the secretive project. MP David wants to know why South Africa commissioned a Russian company to develop a reconnaissance satellite over which it would have no control, as well as the implications for the privacy of South African citizens.

Maynier told Times Live that questions about the secret R1.4 billion defence intelligence have been met with “veiled threats” by Defence Minister, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula.

Others, including political scientist and long-time observer of South Africa’s space efforts Keith Gottschalk, questioned the amount of money spent on Project Flute at a time when the government is going through fiscal austerity.

Full scale prototype of the Kondor-E satellite

Full scale prototype of the Kondor-E satellite

A detailed report on the project from Russian Space Web explains Project Flute was the brainchild of General “Mojo” Motau, who served as a head of Defense Intelligence at the time. South African intelligence planned to use the satellite for various surveillance goals, including battlefield reconnaissance.

The South African government shelved Project Flute in 2007 after officials realized that the full control over the satellite and its data would remain in Russian hands, reducing the project’s efficiency in relaying intelligence.

Project Flute was revived after NPO Mashinostroenia (NPO Mash), the Russian company who built the satellite, promised to build a ground station in South Africa. While the exact location of the ground station is not known, likely sites include SA National Space Agency’s Hartesbeeshoek facility, or the Overberg Test Range near Arniston, operated by Denel.

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