Satellites signal new low-cost space race

Andrew Leeson
(Australian Associated Press)

The launch of three Australian satellites may be one small step in the worldwide space industry but for local universities and start-ups looking to the stars, it’s a giant leap.

At 1.11am (AEST) on Wednesday a rocket blasted off from the Cape Canaveral launch pad in the United States carrying 36 satellites, including the first Australian satellites to be sent into orbit in 15 years.

Two of the Australian satellites were designed and built by teams from Sydney University and UNSW. The third was from the University of Adelaide and the University of South Australia.

“Successful launch! The University of Sydney is in space! All perfect,” Sydney University space physics professor Iver Cairns said in a statement from Florida.

It’s taken the UNSW team about six years to get to launch day, Australian Centre for Space Engineering and Research director Andrew Dempster told AAP.

“There is a lot of waiting but it’s actually quite satisfying now that the launch has actually happened,” Prof Dempster said.

The satellites’ main mission will be to monitor the thermosphere – a region between 200 kilometres and 380km above the earth – in collaboration with 50 universities worldwide.

Also on board Australia’s small “cubesats” is experimental technology invaluable for the UNSW team to see in action, Prof Dempster said.

One of the 1.3-kilogram satellites is built from a 3D printed material which has never been in space before. Also, a new computer chip will hopefully stop the satellite from crashing when hit by cosmic rays.

Completing the project without an astronomical budget was a big achievement, UNSW’s dean of engineering, Mark Hoffman, said in a statement.

“We used to think space as a place only big-budget space agencies could play in (but) the advent of cheap and powerful cubesats has made space accessible,” he said.

Sydney start-up supporter Delta V SpaceHub is hoping to capitalise on this accessibility by helping companies develop space services such as 3D-printing solid rocket motors or developing new liquid fuels.

Delta V boss Tim Parson says Wednesday’s launch comes at a key moment.

“We’re hoping this year we’ll have an announcement to form an Australian space agency,” Dr Parsons told AAP.

Five companies involved in Australia’s space technology industry raised $10 million in early stage funding this year and the industry is expected to grow fast, he said.

The old approach to space technology was based on huge costs and a “can’t-fail” mentality but cheaper technology is allowing a more experimental approach.


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