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PhD candidate and propulsion engineer in the Aerospace Systems Research Group (ASReG), Mr Kai Broughton has been named among the African Space Industry’s Top 10 Under 30 Class of 2020.

The listing is announced annually by the Space in Africa news agency.

‘It’s an honour to be chosen as one of this year’s class of young people contributing to the space industry, and it’s an important opportunity to draw attention to the work and mission of ASReG,’ said Broughton.

The 27-year-old engineer responded to Space in Africa’s call for applications, and was selected for the Top 10 alongside two other South Africans, two each from Angola and Morocco and one each from Ghana, Ethiopia and Nigeria.

Africa’s space ecosystem is experiencing growth in expertise, investment from governments and the private sector, and contributions from innovators, engineers, researchers and writers. In 2019 Space in Africa began profiling their selected top 10 individuals in the industry, employing a thorough selection process to decide on the stand-out achievers.

2020’s Top 10 individuals will be recognised at the New Space Africa Conference in Ethiopia in November.

According to statement from the organisation: ‘These young people continue to display outstanding courage and contribute significantly to the industry, reminding us at all times that Africa is ready to take its place in the global space market.’

As a propulsion engineer at ASReG, Broughton is working on liquid rocket propulsion systems and static test facilities, laying the foundation for an indigenous satellite launch capability. He is also working on ignition systems for several engines under development by ASReG, and is involved part-time as the lead engineer for the Phoenix-1B hybrid sounding rocket project, developing and upgrading two sounding rockets to be launched by the end of this year. These launches will prove technology and operations required for a commercial workhorse sounding rocket, to be used to commission a new sounding rocket launch facility in South Africa.

His work at ASReG contributes to his PhD research, which is in the area of liquid rocket engine design.

Broughton completed his undergraduate and Master’s studies in Mechanical Engineering at UKZN, attaining his degrees summa cum laude and cum laude respectively and receiving first prize for his final-year project as well as the best fourth-year student award, and the prestigious Engineering Council of South Africa Merit Medal. His master’s project involved the development of the Phoenix-1B Mk II hybrid sounding rocket, focusing on the rocket motor design and testing and culminating in a launch test in February 2019.

Having always been interested in aerospace, Broughton’s exposure to the field was accentuated during his master’s studies, and as he watched worldwide trends in space exploration and technology, he became passionate about helping South Africa build its own capacity for launching aerospace vehicles and technology. He felt launching could be achieved if the country developed critical infrastructure and expertise, and capitalised on the knowledge of experienced engineers and researchers who were part of South Africa’s early launch vehicle programmes.

Broughton’s work helps meet the aims of ASReG, which include the development of aerospace technologies related to rockets and space vehicles, and the development of human skills in Aerospace Engineering.

‘There is a huge market gap to launch satellites into space from Africa – not just to build them! We are trying to fill this gap, which will create jobs, expertise and investment.’

Said leader of ASReG Dr Jean Pitot: ‘The ASReG team is proud of Kai’s profound contributions to the group’s objective of developing technologies and human capital to enable South African space access. Over and above his dedication, determination and spirit of innovation, this prestigious recognition is testament to his remarkable abilities as a young engineer. His accomplishments, along with those achieved by the rest of ASReG’s exceptional team, demonstrate beyond a doubt that South Africa has the depth of engineering talent required to establish an indigenous launch capability that is commercially competitive and able to service Africa’s space launch needs.’

Academic leader of Mechanical Engineering at UKZN Professor Mike Brooks paid tribute to Broughton’s achievement, saying: ‘Kai is a highly talented engineer and a valued member of the team. ASReG is fortunate to have top-flight engineers working on incredibly complex aerospace propulsion systems, and this award rightfully recognises the technological strides that Kai, and the group, have made as we pursue a commercial rocket launch capability for South Africa.’

Words: Christine Cuénod

Photograph: Supplied