Features

The case for space

By Deborah Smith
Photo: Corbis

Australia’s failure to have its own eye in the sky could cost us in the long run.   

Andrew Dempster wants to put Australia back in the space race.

He’s not talking about putting Australians on the moon, or necessarily launching spacecraft.

“What I’m talking about is developing and operating our own Earth-observation satellites,” says the director of the Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research (ACSER) at UNSW.

In this connected world, space-based technology is essential to daily activities such as ATM and credit card transactions, GPS navigation and satellite TV. Globally, the space industry generates revenues of around US$250 billion per year. And in this environment Australia has a special place: we do not own or operate any satellites of our own. Instead Australia relies on other countries to give us free access to data from their satellites.

We are “freeloaders” depending on the “kindness of strangers”, Professor Dempster says. “But this generosity can’t last.” 

LOST IN SPACE

Australia is heavily reliant on data from Earth-observation satellites – all of which are controlled by other nations – for many critical public and commercial purposes. This space data will be worth $4 billion annually to the economy by 2015, and the contribution to weather forecasting from satellite data is valued at more than $400 million a year, Dempster says.

We are very good at the “downstream” role of analysing the information others give us, he says. “But we do absolutely nothing upstream to provide the data. We need to step up.”

One of the motivators would be the boost to forecasting and monitoring of extreme weather and natural disasters. One of the best ways to get on-theground information during emergencies is from space, says Associate Professor Linlin Ge, of the School of Surveying and Spatial Information Systems.

Ge and his team are international leaders in the use of satellite data to help with the rapid response to natural disasters. During the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, the 2009 Victorian bushfires and again in the NSW and Queensland floods, Ge and his team provided high-definition satellite radar images of the events as they unfolded.

“Satellite radar imaging is faster than airborne photography and surveying. A satellite can image a 40km by 40km area within 10 seconds,” he says. Working around the clock during the crises, the team of 10 researchers was able to decode the images in twicedaily updates, before passing them on to authorities.

The hitch? The satellites were not Australian, meaning delays of up to six hours while the researchers waited for them to pass over European and other international ground stations to downlink their data.

Having our own Earth-observation satellite would remove these delays, says Ge. The most recent Defence White Paper also identified the need for such a satellite. “But this is a big investment. In the meantime a relatively small investment of about $5 million in a purpose-built, satellite ground-receiving station would give us the capacity Australia urgently needs to effectively deal with natural disasters,” Ge says.

BIGGER iS NOT NECESSARILY BETTER

It is a misconception that satellites have to be huge and cost hundreds of millions of dollars to be useful, putting them beyond this country’s means. Dr Steven Tsitas argues Australia could build a space capability by developing small yet powerful, low-cost spacecraft in the size range of eight to 40kg, starting with "shoe-box" size 8 kg 6U CubeSats.  "This is the last remaining commercial satellite niche," says Tsitas. “If Australia fails to grasp this opportunity, others will.” 

“If the government wants to get into space, we can do it cheaply,” says Dempster. UNSW is already taking the lead and is part of an international group of 50 universities and institutions building smaller CubeSats, which will be launched on a single rocket, possibly by 2016.

Dempster says a space agency would provide a first port of call for overseas inquiries and have the technical capability to assess projects, champion their introduction and drive innovation. He points to Britain’s recently established space agency, which has a goal of growing that country’s space sector to be worth £400 billion by 2030.

BACK TO THE FUTURE

Younger Australians could be forgiven for accepting Australia’s absence from the space industry as a given. But for previous generations the reality was very different.

“Many people would be surprised to learn Australia has a proud involvement in space research dating back to the 1950s and 1960s,” Dempster says. Woomera in the South Australian desert, was once the world’s second-most-used launch site after Cape Canaveral. The facility was central to the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo space programs. When man first stepped foot on the moon, the radio telescope at Parkes, in central western NSW, beamed the historic images to a waiting world.

“Space was sexy in the 1960s and it still is,” says Dempster. A recent public lecture by NASA’s René Fradet about the Mars rover Curiosity packed out the 1000-seat Clancy Auditorium. Today, Australian university courses in space science and engineering, attract top-ranking students. But Dempster warns there will be few local industry jobs for the space graduates unless there is a concerted effort to develop the area.

Now, after a five-year-long process, Australia could be about to get a space policy, with the Federal Government expected to release one before the election. In 2008 a Senate inquiry report, titled Lost in Space?, painted a gloomy picture of the country’s space capability. The report concluded the “Australian Government should have a space policy and, like most other comparable countries, an agency to implement it”.

In response, a Space Policy Unit was established a year later, along with the Space Industry Innovation Council and a $40 million space research program. The latter has funded 14 projects, with the money running out this year. They include four educational programs, including two at UNSW – a master’s program in satellite systems engineering, and an interactive program for high-school students, based on space exploration and Mars rovers.

Dempster’s team received around $4.6 million for the development of synthetic aperture radar satellites, which are not affected by factors such as smoke, dust and volcanic ash that hamper other Earth-observation satellites. They have potential for measuring the biomass of forests for carbon accounting and to analyse soil moisture.

Other opportunities are also on the horizon. The next great “gold rush”, according to Dempster, will be off-Earth mining and the extraction in space of rare minerals such as yttrium, lanthanum and samarium, and for helium-3, a fuel for nuclear fusion. And the plans for spacemining expeditions are well advanced. [See breakout box.]

Robots would be central to refuel satellites and build structures such as fuel depots in space, says Dr Gordon Roesler, a visiting researcher at UNSW’s ACSER. This provides more opportunities. Australia is not only a leader in mining, its robotics researchers are among the best, he says. “Space robotics is in its infancy and Australia can get into the game.”

MAKING THE CASE

While there has been a lot of excitement around Australia’s “case for space”, not everyone is convinced. Even if a cohesive space policy eventuates, the government has made it clear it is not interested in funding satellite launch capability here.

“The word space is a dirty word in politics. It denotes geeks and huge costs and in the current climate both of those things don’t really go down well,” says Brett Biddington, Chair of the Space Industry Association of Australia.

He says for these reasons the government’s policy, when released, is unlikely to mention the word space. Rather, it is likely to be called a “satellite utilisation policy”.

Biddington does not believe Australia needs a space agency and says Australian scientists haven’t made the economic case for space well enough.

He says past disinterest by governments in developing a space policy has to be understood through the prism of national security alliances. Australia provided the real estate for the UK to test weapons and for the US to build bases vital to its defence, and in return we have enjoyed protection and privileged access to space-derived data. This “largely free ride in space” has been a boon for the country, he says. “As a taxpayer, it’s a very good deal.”

But not everything has been free. Australia spends about $1 billion a year on space services, much of it on communications for military purposes. And the costs will only increase.

If, as Dempster suggests, Australia really is the “Blanche Dubois of satellite Earth observation”, keen to rub shoulders with the global space industry but ultimately dependent “on the kindness of strangers”, then like the character in the Tennessee Williams’ play, that dependency makes us vulnerable.  

 

THE MOON BOOM

Leonhard Bernold plunges his hand into a bag, pulls out a handful of grey, powdery soil and tosses it into the air. The tiny particles float in the lamplight. A byproduct of crushing basalt rock to make concrete, the dust is so fine it’s usually cast away by the quarry that makes it. But for Bernold, an Associate Professor in the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering, it’s a treasured commodity. “It’s like gold,” he says. “This dust is the closest thing on Earth to moon soil.”

When Bernold arrived at UNSW in 2011 he was ecstatic to learn a nearby quarry used filters over its crushers to collect the dust. At his previous post in Korea, Bernold would spend days manually grinding basalt to get a single kilogram. He now gets truckloads of his “Australian lunar soil simulant” for free and is using it to explore innovative methods to build, source power, and mine on the moon. The motivation for off-Earth mining is clear: there are valuable minerals in abundance. Highlighting the interest, UNSW recently hosted the country’s first off-Earth mining forum, attracting experts from around the world.

If it all sounds like science fiction, two US-based startups are already making rumblings about sending exploratory spacecrafts asteroid hunting. And NASA has examined the feasibility of capturing an asteroid and placing it in lunar orbit for mining. But there’s a lot of work to be done. Near anti-gravity won’t allow conventional digging or drilling, power will be hard to come by, and automated robots will be required to do the bulk of the heavy lifting. And there’s also the problem of moon dust. These sharp-edged grains of soil wreaked havoc with the Apollo astronauts. It covered and scratched the solar panels and was so abrasive it nearly wore through space suits.

Bernold says keeping the dust at bay will be critical, but he also sees opportunities. By mixing his soil simulant with polymers he’s developed a range of lunar concrete elements for building and radiation protection. And he’s also shown that, when baked into bricks, these materials have excellent properties for storing solar thermal energy – needed to keep operations running through the long lunar night.

By Myles Gough