Canberran spacecraft simulator lands UK defence contract

Brandon How

A Canberra-based spacecraft simulator firm will work on a more than $1.5 million United Kingdom Ministry of Defence contact to support its satellite mission.

Nominal Systems has partnered with United Kingdom-based space situational awareness specialist Northern Space and Security (NORSS) to compete for the £869,000 contract. Work on the ARTSIM satellite and mission simulator is contracted from January 2022 until the end of July 2023.

Galileo Ventures, which provided pre-seed funding to Nominal Systems in 2021, said the deal could increase by more than $5 million as the firm extends its work with the Ministry. It also said that Nominal is the first Australian software startup to win a space simulation software contract with a member of the Five Eyes security alliance.

Nominal Systems chief technology officer Brenton Smith said the technology can combine multiple models of components to test a spacecraft’s functionality as a system, allowing designs to be tested before investing in physical development. It is also useful for later stage tests as well as reference tool during operations.

A render of the simulator alongside a physical prototype Image: Nominal Systems

Mr Smith said they plan to be Australian-based for the foreseeable future and have been in conversation with the Department of Defence.

“We’re really proud of being Australian owned and using Australian technology. We’re really looking to invest in R&D within Australia and keep improving that product,” Mr Smith said.

“The Australian Department of Defence, like many defence organisations, have recognised the value of digital twinning. We’re always in conversation with stakeholders within the Department of Defence in Australia and overseas. We’re always trying to see where we can add value to their operations to help protect the sovereignty of Australia.”

By running Nominal Systems’ simulation technology on the Unreal Engine, the firms takes advantage of the aesthetic visuals and performance computing developed in gaming. Adding new modules to the simulation is also similar to the scripting process commonly used by engineers on other software.

The firm is currently looking to hire developers with experience using video game engines as well as software systems engineers and project managers. To fulfil the deal, Nominal will recruit eight additional staff in Australia while NORSS will recruit an additional five.

Nominal Systems was founded by Mr Smith and chief executive Christopher Capon in 2020 as a spin-off from University of New South Wales Canberra Space.

Mr Smith said that “this UK contract is going to really help give us a bit of credibility and just get our foot in the door in terms of getting our technology out there”. The firm is also looking to hire business development staff to manage its planned expansion into North America, Europe, and other countries.

He said the company was able to win the contract due to an existing relationship with NORSS.

“[NORSS] is growing quite well because they offer good consulting services and [specific development activity services] plus a whole bunch of other services as well. Through our existing relationship with them, they found this opportunity, which went out for tender,” Mr Smith said.

“They agreed to partner with us on the application, and they’ve been pretty good since then in supporting us to do project management.”

NORSS founder and executive director Ralph Dinsley said he was excited to collaborate with Nominal Systems.

“In the short time since its inception NORSS has been blessed to meet and collaborate with some talented individuals and companies from overseas. This project is not only a natural extension of our continuing Space Situational Awareness development but also marks a significant and unprecedented collaboration across global hemispheres,” Mr Dinsley said.

“We’re delighted to be working with the Nominal team on this project providing significant capabilities to the newly formed [United Kingdom] Space Command and excited about the additional benefits our partnership will create.”

ARTSIM will support the ARTEMIS mission from design activities through to mission operation and eventual decommissioning. This is not to be confused with NASA’s Artemis project to begin landing humans on the moon again in 2024.

The contract offer terms and conditions have been published on the United Kingdom contracts finder website, but details about the ARTEMIS-ADONIS mission have been redacted.

The UK Ministry of Defence unveiled Team ARTEMIS in July 2019, a partnership with defence personnel in the United States. This included a £30 million program to launch a small satellite demonstrator in one year.

At the time, chief of the United Kingdom Air Staff Sir Stephen Hillier said that the program would improve command and control, space situational awareness, and demonstrated a commitment to the Space Coalition with their allies.

“ARTEMIS gives us the opportunity to grow skills, understand the military relevance of small satellites and responsive launch, and consider how to get space-based information to the warfighter in operationally relevant timelines, all of which are vital to ensure we stay ahead of the evolving threat,” Mr Hillier said.

Team ARTEMIS is also supposed to conduct research into other military applications of small satellites.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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