UNSW Canberra has successfully launched its first miniature satellite into orbit and unveiled a new facility to develop space missions locally.
The launch is a major milestone for the burgeoning Australian space sector, buoyed by the imminent creation of a national space agency.
Dubbed Buccaneer, the cube satellite launch was a joint effort by the university and the Defence department, and developed by a team of scientists at UNSW Canberra and the Defence Science and Technology Group (DST).
Built locally, cubesat was launched by NASA from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California on 18 November and successfully obtained a stable orbit on Monday.
The team have been able to successfully communicate with the spacecraft, and it has obtained telemetry.
UNSW Space Engineering chair Professor Russell Boyce said it is an important milestone for the local space sector.
“It was a big moment in that it was the first satellite for defence that was developed in Australia. It’s the first one for defence, and that’s a big thing. Defence is a key player and depends heavily on space-derived information,” Professor Boyce told InnovationAus.com.
“Defence is looking to see the domestic industry growing and maturing to support defence needs, including in space. That in turn is a big thing,” he said.
“There are going to be growing opportunities for the Australian space industry to be involved in space projects to meet the needs of defence.”
The cubesat, which is about the size of a shoebox, will help to calibrate Australia’s Jindalee over-the-horizon-radar, and to also monitor and predict the orbits of space objects, including space junk.
The Jindalee Operational Radar Network monitors air and sea movements, and Buccaneer will provide the measurements needed to calibrate it. Buccaneer will undergo tests in the coming weeks before undertaking its risk mitigation activities and experiments at the start of next year.
The non-payload part of the satellite was procured from a US company, but in the future these satellites will be entirely home grown.
Next up for UNSW Canberra Space is a series of three satellites for the Royal Australia Air Force as part of a $10 million deal between the organisations. The first of these satellites is to be launched in the first half of next year.
“That will be the first of multiple spacecraft that will demonstrate the possibilities with maritime surveillance, and put the RAAF and our team through a learning curve,” Professor Boyce said.
The UNSW Canberra Space program has $10 million in internal funding and a team of more than 40 space engineers, scientists and PhD students, that Professor Boyce has lured back home from overseas.
The university has also launched the Australian National Concurrent Design Facility on Monday to act as a “nerve centre” for future local space missions, and a national asset for the space sector.
The space mission design facility will bring together various stakeholders in a potential space mission, including scientists, engineers and project managers, to work out the details and feasibility of it quickly.
Along with the spacecraft test facilities at the Australian National University in Canberra, the facility will act as an “end-to-end conveyer belt” for the development of “world-class space missions”.
“We now have a facility in Australia of the same calibre as what international space agencies and aerospace companies use, where you bring all the key people together in the same room at the same time,” Professor Boyce said.
“Everybody has a different part to play in determining whether a mission is feasible or not and what it should look like.
“That can be done very quickly and efficiently with this design facility, as opposed to what you do if you don’t have one, which is a serial process. It can take months and goes around in circles. It’s a resource and an asset that the whole nation can use.”
Professor Boyce said the local space sector has been growing rapidly in recent years, but needs to focus on Australia’s strengths, rather than trying to take on the world.
“There’s a lot of growing momentum, with a very large number of players appearing in different parts of the country with different elements of capability. There are opportunities for that collective capability to mature and in turn there are opportunities for Australia to take a share of the global market,” he said.
“But we need to be careful to not assume that we can take our fraction of the global market in a uniform sort of way. There are a lot of very capable space industry and research organisations out there in the world.
“It’s a very highly contested marketplace and Australia would be playing catch-up if we tried to just get out and do battle with the international sector.”
Australia should instead focus on existing strength in industries like quantum computing, artificial intelligence and autonomous devices, and apply these to the space sector, he said.
“Australia has some niche areas of strength, quite disruptive strength, which can be combined with space to create some niche areas of growth.
“There’s an opportunity for the Australian industry to grow in niche areas and take world leadership, rather than doing battle in contested marketplaces.”
The government earlier this year announced that it would be moving to create a national space agency to coordinate the local sector and work with overseas partners.
Professor Boyce said this agency needs to be a coordinating body for the local sector, and shouldn’t try to be Australia’s NASA.
“It needs to glue together a lot of what’s happening. It also needs to provide an international shopfront for the rest of the world to know who to talk to when they come