New coins celebrate Indigenous astronomy, the stars, and the dark spaces between them



The Seven Sisters Uncirculated Coin.
Royal Australian Mint

Duane W. Hamacher, University of Melbourne

Two new coins have been released by the Royal Australian Mint to celebrate the astronomical knowledge and traditions of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. They feature artworks from Wiradjuri (NSW) and Yamaji (WA) artists that represent two of the most famous features in Aboriginal astronomy: the great Emu in the Sky and the Seven Sisters.

Both celestial features are found in the astronomical traditions of many Aboriginal cultures across Australia. They are seen in similar ways and have similar meanings between cultures on opposite sides of the continent and are observed to note the changing seasons and the behaviours of plants and animals and inform Law.

The project has been three years in the making, with the third and final coin in the series to be released in mid-2021.




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Gugurmin – The Emu in the Sky

The Wiradjuri of central New South Wales are the largest Aboriginal language group in the state and one of the largest in the country. Wiradjuri astronomical knowledge is rich and complex, linking the land and people to the cosmos (Wantanggangura). Traditional star knowledge features bright constellations of stars, as well as constellations comprising the spaces between the stars.

One of the many “dark constellations” is that of the celestial emu, called Gugurmin. The emu is a silhouette of the dark spaces stretching from the Southern Cross to Sagittarius in the backdrop of the Milky Way. The galaxy itself is a river called Gular (or Gilaa), which is also the Wiradjuri name of the Lachlan River.

Two decorative coins with Indigenous designs.
Two new uncirculated silver $1 coins commemorate Indigenous astronomy.
Royal Australian Mint



Read more:
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Wiradjuri watch when Gugurmin rises in the sky after sunset as a signal marking the emu’s behaviour patterns and changing seasons. When it rises at dusk in April and May, it signals the start of the emu breeding season, when the birds begin mating and nesting. By June and July, the male emus are sitting in the nest, incubating the eggs. In August and September, the chicks begin hatching.

The Emu in the Sky coin features the work of Wiradjuri artist Scott “Sauce” Towney from Peak Hill, NSW. Sauce specialises in drawing and pyrography (wood burning) and was a finalist in the NSW Premier’s Indigenous Art Awards. The edge of the coin shows a male emu sitting on the eggs during the months of June and July when his celestial counterpart is stretched across the sky. It also shows men dancing in a ceremony, which takes place in August and September.

Gugurmin was one of the artworks Sauce created for a project entitled Wiradjuri Murriyang (“Wiradjuri Sky World”). This featured 13 traditional constellations for use in local school education programs, as well as public outreach. His art was incorporated into the Stellarium planetarium software, enabling users around the world to see the movements of the stars from a Wiradjuri perspective.

Sauce’s work was incorporated into the Australian National Curriculum for the Year 7/8 module on digital technology and managing Indigenous astronomical knowledge.




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Nyarluwarri – The Seven Sisters

The artwork featured on the Seven Sisters coin is from Wajarri-Noongar artist Christine “Jugarnu” Collard of Yamaji Art. Christine was born and raised in Mullewa, Western Australia and paints under the name Jugarnu meaning “old woman” in the Wajarri language. The name was given to Christine by her now deceased Grandfather.

The Yamaji people of the Murchison region in Western Australia refer to the Pleiades star cluster as Nyarluwarri in the Wajarri language, representing seven sisters. When Nyarluwarri sits low on the horizon at sunset in April, the people know that emu eggs are ready for harvesting.

Seven Sisters painting by Christine Jugarnu Collard and the Pleiades star cluster.
Christine Collard, Yamaji Art

The story of the Seven Sisters tells of them fleeing to the sky to escape the advances of a man who wants to take one of the sisters as his wife. The man chases the sisters as they move from east to west each night, which appear to the northeast at dusk in November and set by April.

At the same time Nyarluwarri sets after the Sun in the west, the celestial emu (which is also featured in Yamaji traditions) rises in the southeast. Both serve as important seasonal markers.

The Seven Sisters and the Emu in the Sky were major themes in the Ilgarijiri – Things Belonging to the Sky art exhibition. This project saw radio astronomers and Yamaji artists come together to share knowledge under the stars at the site of the new Square Kilometre Array (SKA) telescope.




Read more:
Indigenous culture and astrophysics: a path to reconciliation


The Conversation


Duane W. Hamacher, Associate Professor, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Asteroid 2018 VP₁ may be heading for Earth. But there’s no need to worry



Asteroid 2018 VP1 itself is too small and far away to see clearly, so here’s an artist’s impression of a near-Earth object.
NASA / JPL-Caltech

Jonti Horner, University of Southern Queensland

Social media around the world lit up over the weekend, discussing the possibility that an asteroid (known as 2018 VP₁) could crash into Earth on November 2.

It seemed only fitting. What better way to round off a year that has seen catastrophic floods, explosions, fires, and storms – and, of course, a global pandemic?

A massive planetesimal, smashing into Earth. Exactly what won’t happen on November 2 with 2018 VP₁…
NASA/Don Davis

But you can rest easy. The asteroid does not pose a threat to life on Earth. Most likely, it will sail harmlessly past our planet. At worst, it will burn up harmlessly in our atmosphere and create a firework show for some lucky Earthlings.

So, what’s the story?

Our story begins a couple of years ago, on November 3, 2018. That night, the Zwicky Transient Facility at Palomar Observatory in Southern California discovered a faint new “near-Earth asteroid” – an object whose orbit can approach, or cross, that of our planet.

Black and white photo of an asteroid.
The near-Earth asteroid Eros, which is thousands of times larger than 2018 VP₁.
NASA / JPL

At the time of its discovery, 2018 VP₁ was roughly 450,000 kilometres from Earth – a little farther than the average distance between Earth and the Moon (around 384,000km).

The asteroid was very faint, and hard to spot against the background stars. Astronomers were only able to watch it for 13 days, before it was too far from Earth to see.




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Based on that short series of observations, it became clear the asteroid is a kind of near-Earth object called an “Apollo asteroid”.

Apollo asteroids spend most of their time beyond Earth’s orbit, but swing inward across our planet’s orbit at the innermost part of their journey around the Sun. 2018 VP₁ takes two years to go around the Sun, swinging just inside Earth’s orbit every time it reaches “perihelion” (its closest approach to our star).

Diagram showing the intersecting orbits of asteroid 2018 VP₁ and Earth.
The orbit of asteroid 2018 VP₁ intersects Earth’s orbit once every two years.
NASA / JPL

Because 2018 VP₁’s orbit takes almost exactly two years, in 2020 (two years after discovery), it will once again pass close to Earth.

But how close will it come? Well, that’s the million-dollar question.

Anything from a collision to a very distant miss …

To work out an object’s exact path through the Solar system, and to predict where it will be in the future (or where it was in the past), astronomers need to gather observations.

We need at least three data points to estimate an object’s orbit – but that will only give us a very rough guess. The more observations we can get, and the longer the time period they span, the better we can tie down the orbit.

And that’s why the future of 2018 VP₁ is uncertain. It was observed 21 times over 13 days, which allows its orbit to be calculated fairly precisely. We know it takes 2 years (plus or minus 0.001314 years) to go around the Sun. In other words, our uncertainty in the asteroid’s orbital period is about 12 hours either way.

That’s actually pretty good, given how few observations were made – but it means we can’t be certain exactly where the asteroid will be on November 2 this year.




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However, we can work out the volume of space within which we can be confident that the asteroid will lie at a given time. Imagine a huge bubble in space, perhaps 4 million km across at its largest. We can be very confident the asteroid will be somewhere in the bubble – but that’s about it.

What does that mean for Earth? Well, it turns out the closest approach between the two this year will be somewhere between a direct hit and an enormous miss – with the asteroid coming no closer than 3.7 million km!

We can also work out the likelihood the asteroid will hit Earth during this close approach. The odds are 0.41%, or roughly 1 in 240. In other words, by far the most likely outcome on November 2 is the asteroid will sail straight past us.

But what if it did hit us?

As the great Terry Pratchett once wrote, “Million-to-one chances crop up nine times out of ten”. But have you ever heard someone say “It’s a 240-to-1 chance, but it might just work?”

So should we be worried?

Well, the answer here goes back to how hard it was to spot 2018 VP₁ in the first place. Based on how faint it was, astronomers estimate it’s only about 2 metres across. Objects that size hit Earth all the time.

Bigger asteroids do more damage, as we were spectacularly reminded back in February 2013, when an asteroid around 20 metres across exploded in the atmosphere above the Russian city of Chelyabinsk.

A collection of footage of the Chelyabinsk airburst, and its aftermath, on 15 Feb 2013.

The Chelyabinsk airburst was spectacular, and the shockwave damaged buildings and injured more than 1,500 people. But that was an object ten times the diameter of 2018 VP₁ – which means it was probably at least 1,000 times heavier, and could penetrate far further into the atmosphere before meeting its fiery end.




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2018 VP₁ is so small it poses no threat. It would almost certainly burn up harmlessly in our atmosphere before it reached the ground. Most likely, it would detonate in an “airburst”, tens of kilometres above the ground – leaving only tiny fragments to drift down to the surface.

If 2018 VP₁ is particularly robust (a chunk of a metal asteroid, rather than a stony or icy one), it could make it to the ground – but even then, it is way too small to cause significant damage.

Having said that, the fireball as the asteroid entered Earth’s atmosphere would be spectacular. If we were really lucky, it might be captured on camera by the Global Fireball network (led by Curtin University).

A bright fireball, imaged by the Perenjori station of the Australian Desert Fireball Network. By observing fireballs like this from multiple locations, researchers can track down any fragments that make it down to the ground.
Wikipedia/Formanlv

With images of the fireball from several cameras, researchers could work out where any debris might fall and head out to recover it. A freshly fallen meteorite is a pristine fragment from which we can learn a great deal about the Solar system’s history.

The bottom line

It’s no wonder in a year like this that 2018 VP₁ has generated some excitement and media buzz.

But, most likely, November 3 will come around and nothing will have happened. 2018 VP₁ will have passed by, likely unseen, back to the depths of space.

Even if Earth is in the crosshairs, though, there’s nothing to worry about. At worst, someone, somewhere on the globe, will see a spectacular fireball – and people in the US might just get to see some spectacular pre-election fireworks.

A song that was definitely NOT written to describe 2018 VP₁!

Or to put it another way: “It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine”.The Conversation

Jonti Horner, Professor (Astrophysics), University of Southern Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Why outer space matters in a post-pandemic world



Department of Defence

Anna Moore, Australian National University

With all of the immense challenges we face on Earth this year, space can feel like an afterthought.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the hope of a growing space industry was palpable. Ribbons were cut, buildings were dedicated and Australia’s space industry was going to triple in size in just ten years. But a few weeks into March, Europe and then Australia were slowly grinding to a halt as the reality of COVID-19 set in.

Satellite images from ESA’s Copernicus Sentinel-2 mission in space showed the extent to which the virus lockdown was affecting major cities.

Air pollution plummeted as countries went into lockdown.
ESA

Next came the dramatic global economic downturn that seemed certain to crush Australia’s space ambitions. Consultants began sending a flurry of email surveys to see how everyone in the industry was coping. How would this change the future of our nation’s newest dream?




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Suddenly, space is everywhere

Work in the space industry has always continued even under the most difficult circumstances. Missions take years to plan and launch. The global space industry has, out of necessity, always embraced uncertainty. Innovation will not stop. International cooperation is still strong. Missions are continuing.

The first test flight of a Europa-1 first stage rocket, a repurposed British Blue Streak missile, from Woomera, Australia, 5 June 1964.
ESA

It was just announced that the European Union is signing a billion-euro agreement with French global launch services company Arianespace, with the hope of injecting another 16 billion euros into the European space industry by 2027. This is big news for Australia’s space industry too. Our history with Arianespace goes back to its predecessor, which launched the Europa rocket for the first time ever in South Australia in 1964.

NASA and SpaceX are making headlines for the first trip to the International Space Station in a commercially built and operated American spacecraft with astronauts on board. China’s space program is rapidly developing and an upcoming mission could make it the second country to land and operate a spacecraft on Mars.

Australia’s space capabilities

In this multinational mix, Australia has much to offer. We are currently leaders in advanced and quantum communication that would make deep space communication possible, as well as creating unhackable communications on Earth.

Our government has taken steps to realise these opportunities through its first round of funding to accelerate the industry and galvanise the future of our space agency.

Ten strategic space projects just received government funding to help Australia build relationships with other international space agencies. In defence funding announcements last week, space was highlighted as one of the five defence domains for a strong Australian Defence Force.

A quick recovery

We are now seeing some amazing post-COVID wins for Australia. Planet Innovation, a Melbourne-based company, was the only Australian manufacturer to be chosen by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to make an innovative COVID ventilator. More than 300 companies around the world applied for the opportunity.

SpaceX chief Elon Musk suggested Hobart-based boat builder, Incat, could help build “floating, superheavy-class space ports for Mars, Moon and hypersonic travel around the Earth.” Fleet Space Technologies and Oz Minerals were just awarded a grant to use space technology in mineral exploration.

A few weeks ago, the Australian National University National Space Test Facility (NSTF) was the first non-COVID research facility at the university to reopen. Its first project was testing a piece of space equipment created by Australian company Gilmour Space Technologies that will fly on an Australian space mission in 2022.

Next, the NSTF team performed testing for Fleet Space Technologies, who drove their components from Adelaide to Canberra as there were no connecting flights. The NSTF has been continuously testing other space components for Australian missions since it reopened.

These are all hard-won successes in the face of COVID, and they speak volumes about the promise of Australia’s space industry.




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Space will help Australia recover

Our space industry also enables others. Space technologies are transferrable to Earth-bound sectors such as health and mining, and the industry helps economic recovery because it operates at many scales from small research projects to large multi-disciplinary initiatives.

Our nation is set to give rise to bespoke satellites that are proprietary to Australia. We will have our own satellite constellations to address critical issues like drought, water quality management and bushfires.

Our innovation will protect our sovereignty, and global space industry titans like NASA can see our promise with missions like Artemis: Moon to Mars.

Australia’s space industry began in uncertainty, and – despite bushfires, pandemics and massive change – it will succeed under uncertainty.The Conversation

Anna Moore, Director of The Australian National University Institute for Space and the Advanced Instrumentation Technology Centre, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Australia has long valued an outer space shared by all. Mining profits could change this



moon.

Jeffrey McGee, University of Tasmania and Bin Li, University of Newcastle

Earlier this month, US President Donald Trump issued an executive order reaffirming that companies joining US mining activities on the moon would have property rights over lunar resources.

The order also made clear the US wasn’t bound by international treaties on the moon. Instead, the US would set up a bilateral or multilateral legal framework with other like-minded states to govern lunar mining activities.

This bold move by the Trump administration poses some challenging questions for Australia, given our past commitment to international space treaties and our current support the US Artemis lunar program.




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Australia is a longstanding member of all five space treaties. Also, the terms “international” and “responsible” are two of the principles guiding the Australian Space Agency in designing and implementing its policies and programs.

As such, Australia will need to decide how it plans to respond to Trump’s move and how this will shape its future space policies. Will it continue to hold an “international” view toward the exploitation of resources from outer space?

Or can Australian companies “responsibly” take part in mining of the moon without contravening the country’s treaty obligations?

Space resources as a ‘common heritage of mankind’

The Trump administration’s proposal is potentially at odds with a key principle in the 1979 Moon Treaty known as the “common heritage of mankind” (CHM).

The CHM principle is an important part of other areas of international law, such as the UN Law of the Sea Convention, which sets restrictions on the mining of deep seabed areas that lie outside national marine boundaries. Specifically, it allows commercial mining, but only if the benefits are shared among different countries by the International Seabed Authority.

Under the Moon Treaty, the CHM principle similarly does not give exclusive property rights to any state or individual companies. Instead, it provides for the “equitable” international sharing of space resources.




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The treaty also requires its state parties to negotiate international rules governing the exploitation and use of these resources.

As party to the Moon Treaty, Australia is obliged to follow these provisions. However, the US has never joined the treaty. It has criticised the CHM principle several times, and essentially does not support the idea of “equitable” sharing of space resources.

This is why the Trump administration is pursuing a separate framework to govern the exploitation and use of resources on the moon.

A difficult balancing act for Australia

There are now some concerns Australia could shift from its commitment to the CHM principle and side with the US view that states and companies should be permitted to freely exploit space resources.

Perhaps due to Australia’s obligations under the Moon Treaty, Prime Minister Scott Morrison did not say anything about the possibility of Australian involvement in mining on the moon when promising to support NASA’s Artemis program last September.




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Instead, Morrison vaguely pledged $150 million investment into Australian businesses and new technologies to help the country become more competitive in the space industry and better support future US space missions to Mars and the moon.

However, NASA may be looking for a different type of collaboration with Australia, focused more on Australian mining capabilities.

NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine told the Australian Financial Review last year that Australian mining companies could have a very specific role to play in space.

…the lunar missions will rely on turning hundreds of millions of tons of mined water ice recently discovered on the moon into liquid forms of hydrogen and oxygen to power spacecraft. That autonomous capability of extracting resources is something that Australia has in its toolkit.

Although there have been no clear messages from the Australian mining industry about whether they have interest in mining on the moon, companies such as Rio Tinto have already been developing the relevant technologies.




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When finalising a specific plan to implement its $150 million investment in space research, the Australian government needs to think carefully about how to comply with its treaty obligations, including CHM, while still supporting its approach to NASA’s lunar program.

Australia needs to decide what it values more – an outer space shared by all, or the profits from possible mining deals that come from a more exclusive approach to space.The Conversation

Jeffrey McGee, Associate Professor, University of Tasmania and Bin Li, Lecturer, University of Newcastle

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Space can solve our looming resource crisis – but the space industry itself must be sustainable


Richard Matthews, University of Adelaide

Australia’s space industry is set to grow into a multibillion-dollar sector that could provide tens of thousands of jobs and help replenish the dwindling stocks of precious resources on Earth. But to make sure they don’t flame out prematurely, space companies need to learn some key lessons about sustainability.

Sustainability is often defined as meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Often this definition is linked to the economic need for growth. In our context, we link it to the social and material needs of our communities.

We cannot grow without limit. In 1972, the influential report The Limits to Growth argued that if society’s growth continued at projected rates, humans would experience a “sudden and uncontrollable decline in both population and industrial capacity” by 2070. Recent research from the University of Melbourne’s sustainability institute updated and reinforced these conclusions.

Our insatiable hunger for resources increases as we continue to strive to improve our way of life. But how does our resource use relate to the space industry?




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There are two ways we could try to avert this forecast collapse: we could change our behaviour from consumption to conservation, or we could find new sources to replenish our stocks of non-renewable resources. Space presents an opportunity to do the latter.

Asteroids provide an almost limitless opportunity to mine rare earth metals such as gold, cobalt, nickle and platinum, as well as the resources required for the future exploration of our solar system, such as water ice. Water ice is crucial to our further exploration efforts as it can be refined into liquid water, oxygen, and rocket fuel.

But for future space missions to top up our dwindling resources on Earth, our space industries themselves must be sustainable. That means building a sustainable culture in these industries as they grow.

How do we measure sustainability?

Triple bottom-line accounting is one of the most common ways to assess the sustainability of a company, based on three crucial areas of impact: social, environmental, and financial. A combined framework can be used to measure performance in these areas.

In 2006, UTS sustainable business researcher Suzanne Benn and her colleagues introduced a method for assessing the corporate sustainability of an organisation in the social and environmental areas. This work was extended in 2014 by her colleague Bruce Perrott to include the financial dimension.

This model allows the assessment of an organisation based on one of six levels of sustainability. The six stages, in order, are: rejection, non-responsiveness, compliance, efficiency, strategic proactivity, and the sustaining corporation.

Sustainability benchmarking the space industry

In my research, which I presented this week at the Australian Space Research Conference in Adelaide, I used these models to assess the sustainability of the American space company SpaceX.

Using freely available information about SpaceX, I benchmarked the company as compliant (level 3 of 6) within the sustainability framework.

While SpaceX has been innovative in designing ways to travel into space, this innovation has not been for environmental reasons. Instead, the company is focused on bringing down the cost of launches.

SpaceX also relies heavily on government contracts. Its profitability has been questioned by several analysts with the capital being raised through the use of loans and the sale of future tickets in the burgeoning space tourism industry. Such a transaction might be seen as an exercise in revenue generation, but accountants would classify such a sale as a liability.

The growing use of forward sales is a growing concern for the industry, with other tourism companies such as Virgin Galactic failing to secure growth. It has been reported that Virgin Galactic will run out of customers by 2023 due to the high costs associated with space travel.




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SpaceX’s culture also rates poorly for sustainability. As at many startups, employees at SpaceX are known to work more than 80 hours a week without taking their mandatory breaks. This problem was the subject of a lawsuit settled in 2017. Such behaviour contravenes Goal 8 of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, which seeks to achieve “decent work for all”.

What’s next?

Australia is in a unique position. As the newest player in the global space industry, the investment opportunity is big. The federal government predicts that by 2030, the space sector could be a A$12 billion industry employing 20,000 people.

Presentations at the Australian Space Research Conference by the Australian Space Agency made one thing clear: regulation is coming. We can use this to gain a competitive edge.




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By embedding sustainability principles into emerging space startups, we can avoid the economic cost of having to correct bad behaviours later.

We will gain the first-mover advantage on implementing these principles, which will in turn increase investor confidence and improve company valuations.

To ensure that the space sector can last long enough to provide real benefits for Australia and the world, its defining principle must be sustainability.The Conversation

Richard Matthews, Research Associate | Councillor, University of Adelaide

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Dig deep: Australia’s mining know-how makes it the perfect $150m partner for NASA’s Moon and Mars shots


Andrew Dempster, UNSW

In the wake of Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s meeting with US President Donald Trump, the Australian government announced on Sunday a commitment of A$150million “into our local businesses and new technologies that will support NASA on its inspirational campaign to return to the Moon and travel to Mars”.

It is unclear at this point where the government intends to spend this money, but there’s no harm in some reflective speculation.




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Because this new commitment is to deep space missions, clearly it is separate from the A$245 million being invested in Australia’s Smartsat Cooperative Research Centre or the A$4.5 million for the Centre for Cubesats, UAVs and their Applications, both of which are generally looking at applications in Earth orbit.

The funding should also be separate from that committed to two Australian Space Agency initiatives: the A$6 million Mission Control Centre for South Australia, and the A$4.5 million Robotics, Automation and Artificial Intelligence Command and Control Centre for Western Australia. Both of these centres could, however, be used in any planned Moon and Mars initiatives.

The funding allocation should also not include the money already committed to space projects by CSIRO under its Space Technology Future Science Platforms initiative.

Where should it be spent?

In thinking about where the money can be spent, it’s worth noting the brief is explicitly to “support NASA”. So, where could Australia help?

NASA’s Orion spacecraft, centrepiece of the Artemis mission, will need lots of technical support.
NASA

NASA’s two main lunar initiatives are the Lunar Gateway and Project Artemis, both of which have been mentioned in relation to Australia’s funding pledge. Mars may be the long-term destination, but the Moon is where it’s at right now.

The Lunar Gateway is infrastructure: a spacecraft placed in a halo orbit (always in view of Earth) that is sometimes as close as 3,000km to the Moon’s surface. It will be used as a hub for astronauts, equipment and communications, and a staging post for lunar landings and returns.

Artemis aims to use NASA’s large new rocket, the Space Launch System, to deliver astronauts, including the first woman to walk on the Moon, to the lunar surface by 2024. It will develop a host of new technologies and is openly collaborative.




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One contribution that cannot be ignored in this context is the technology emerging from Australia’s dominant mining industry. The strength in robotics, automation and remote operations has led to the above-mentioned robotics centre being slated for WA. What’s more, the Australian Remote Operations in Space and on Earth institute, a wide-ranging industry collaboration launched in July, is also likely to be headquartered in WA.

Another area where Australia is developing interesting technology is in optical communications with spacecraft, being driven by research at the Australian National University. At a recent CSIRO workshop to develop “flagship” missions for Australia, the idea of using lasers to beam communications rapidly to the Moon and back was highly rated.

Putting ideas out there

Of the nine possible flagships considered, seven are potentially relevant to the new funding. These include a space weather satellite, an asteroid detection system, a cubesat to Mars, a radiotelescope on the Moon, and a solar sail that could power spacecraft to the Moon. There are plenty of good Australian ideas around.

However, the flagship most closely related to the content of the announcement was a project proposal (disclosure: it’s mine!) that would place an orbiter around the Moon and design a lander/rover to establish our ability to extract water from permanent ice. Water can be used for many things in a settlement, and when split into hydrogen and oxygen it can be used as rocket fuel to move things around, including to Mars.




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All of our research in this area has focused on how this can be done in a commercial way, very much in line with the philosophy of “Space 2.0”. We are putting together a significant team of academics, companies (not just mining and space ones), and agencies to pursue these missions seriously.

There has never been a better time to be working in the space sector in Australia. I and all of my colleagues in the field hope the latest announcement is the next step in establishing the vibrant, sustainable space industry so many in Australia now see as achievable.The Conversation

Andrew Dempster, Director, Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research; Professor, School of Electrical Engineering and Telecommunications, UNSW

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

India has it right: nations either aim for the Moon or get left behind in the space economy



India’s Chandrayaan-2 Moon mission blasts off from Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota, India, on 22 July 2019.
Indian Space Research Organisation/EPA

Nicholas Borroz, University of Auckland

India’s Chandrayaan-2 spacecraft has settled into lunar orbit, ahead of its scheduled Moon landing on September 7. If it succeeds India will join a very select club, now comprising the former Soviet Union, the United States and China.

As with all previous Moon missions, national prestige is a big part of India’s Moon shot. But there are some colder calculations behind it as well. Space is poised to become a much bigger business, and both companies and countries are investing in the technological capability to ensure they reap the earthly rewards.

Last year private investment in space-related technology skyrocketed to US$3.25 billion, according to the London-based Seraphim Capital – a 29% increase on the previous year.

The list of interested governments is also growing. Along with China and India joining the lunar A-list, in the past decade eight countries have founded space agencies – Australia, Mexico, New Zealand, Poland, Portugal, South Africa, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates.

China’s Chang’e 4 spacecraft landed on the far side of the Moon on 11 January 2019. This image taken with the lander’s camera shows the mission’s lunar rover Yutu-2, or Jade Rabbit 2.
China National Space Administration/EPA

Of prime interest is carving out a piece of the market for making and launching commercial payloads. As much as we already depend on satellites now, this dependence will only grow.

In 2018 382 objects were launched into space. By 2040 it might easily be double that, with companies like Amazon planning “constellations”, composed of thousands of satellites, to provide telecommunication services.

The satellite business is just a start. The next big prize will be technology for “in-situ resource utilisation” – using materials from space for space operations. One example is extracting water from the Moon (which could also be split to provide oxygen and hydrogen-based rocket fuel). NASA’s administrator, Jim Bridenstine, has suggested Australian agencies and companies could play a key role in this.




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Australia: well placed to join the Moon mining race … or is it?


All up, the potential gains from a slice of the space economy are huge. It is estimated the space economy could grow from about US$350 billion now to more than US$1 trillion (and as possibly as much US$2,700 billion) in 2040.

Launch affordability

At the height of its Apollo program to land on the Moon, NASA got more than 4% of the US federal budget. As NASA gears up to return to the Moon and then go to Mars, its budget share is about 0.5%.

In space money has most definitely become an object. But it’s a constraint that’s spurring innovation and opening up economic opportunities.

NASA pulled the pin on its space shuttle program in 2011 when the expected efficiencies of a resusable launch vehicle failed to pan out. Since then it has bought seats on Russian Soyuz rockets to get its astronauts into space. It is now paying SpaceX, the company founded by electric car king Elon Musk, to deliver space cargo.

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft just moments after undocking from the International Space Station on 8 March 2019.
NASA/EPA

SpaceX’s stellar trajectory, having entered the business a little more than a decade ago, demonstrates the possibilities for new players.

To get something into orbit using the space shuttle cost about US$54,500 a kilogram. SpaceX says the cost of its Falcon 9 rocket and reuseable Dragon spacecraft is about US$2,700 a kilogram. With costs falling, the space economy is poised to boom.




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Choosing a niche

As the space economy grows, it’s likely different countries will come to occupy different niches. Specialisation will be the key to success, as happens for all industries.

In the hydrocarbon industry, for instance, some countries extract while others process. In the computer industry, some countries design while others manufacture.
There will be similar niches in space. Governments’ policies will play a big part in determining which nation fills which niche.

There are three ways to think about niches.

First, function. A country could focus on space mining, for instance, or space observation. It could act as a space communication hub, or specialise in developing space-based weapons.

Luxembourg is an example of functional specialisation. Despite its small size, it punches above its weight in the satellite industry. Another example is Russia, which for now has the monopoly on transporting astronauts to the International Space Station.

Russian cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin flanked by NASA astronauts Christina Koch and Nick Hague at the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Star City, Russia, as they prepare for their launch aboard the Soyuz MS-12 in March 2019.
Sergei Ilnitsky/EPA

Second, value-adding. A national economy can focus on lower or higher value-add processes. In telecommunications, for example, much of the design work is done in the United States, while much of the manufacturing happens in China. Both roles have benefits and drawbacks.

Third, blocs. Global production networks sometimes fragment. One can already see the potential for this happening between the United States and China. If it occurs, other countries must either align with one bloc or remain neutral.

Aligning with a large power ensures patronage, but also dependence. Being between blocs has its risks, but also provides opportunities to gain from each bloc and act as an intermediary.




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The first space race, between the Soviet Union and the United States, was singularly driven by political will and government policy. The new space race is more complex, with private players taking the lead in many ways, but government priorities and policy are still crucial. They will determine which countries reach the heights, and which get left behind.The Conversation

Nicholas Borroz, PhD candidate in international business and comparative political economy, University of Auckland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Australia can pick up its game and land a Moon mission



The ‘Stairway to the Moon’ as seen from Western Australia.
Flickr/Gary Tindale, CC BY

Andrew Dempster, UNSW

Now all the celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the Moon landing have died down it’s worth considering where we are with future lunar missions half a century on.

Australia has long played a role in space exploration beyond helping to bring those historic images of the first moonwalk to our television screens back in 1969.

Labor MP Peter Khalil has already called for Australia to be involved in a mission to the Moon, and later to Mars. He is co-chair of the recently reformed Parliamentary Friends of Space, along with the National’s MP Kevin Hogan.




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But there is plenty of interest from others in going to the Moon.

The new Moon race

Only last month, India launched its Chandrayaan 2 mission that’s already orbited the Moon and due to land there on September 7.

China recently landed Chang’e-4 on the far side of the Moon while Israel almost succeeded in landing its Beresheet probe.

NASA has committed to sending people to the Moon again by 2024, and to significant lunar infrastructure such as the lunar Gateway, lunar landers and companies to deliver payloads to the Moon.

There is no doubt the Moon has once more captured the world’s interest. One of the reasons for this is human exploration, and that a Moon presence is now recognised as being essential to any future mission to Mars.

Water on the Moon

Another is the presence of water on the Moon, and the usefulness of water for all sorts of reasons in space.

By the time we hosted the second Off-Earth Mining Forum in 2015, it was clear water was the space resource of most immediate interest.

But the companies that existed at that time were mainly looking to source that water from asteroids. It has only been in the past two years that companies like iSpace have come to the fore, aiming at extracting water from the Moon.

Australia has reacted quite quickly to this evolving environment. Only last month, the first workshop met to establish a Remote Operations Institute in Western Australia to look at operating automated machines at a distance – remote mines and space.

The CSIRO identified nine potential “nation-building” flagship space missions, of which four relate to the Moon. One (disclosure, championed by me) is an orbiter and lander aimed at extracting water, but the other three could all support such a mission. Of those nine, four (including mine) have been selected for further examination at a workshop in mid-August in Brisbane.

Since January, we have been working on the Wilde project, where we have re-focussed our space resources research towards the permanently shadowed craters at the Moon’s poles, where water is highly likely to occur in acceptable concentrations.

We are also looking to reduce the risk of investing in a water extraction venture, including the design of orbiter and lander missions.

Explosion of Aussie interest

These Australian initiatives are all being driven in part by the explosion of the Australian space sector. One symptom of this is the establishment of the Australian Space Agency. The agency’s very existence and its promise have further emboldened space businesses and researchers.

But more than a year after its founding we still await any real missions, or commitment to upstream projects (upstream in space projects means those that are actually in space – those great Australian contributions to Apollo were all on the ground – downstream).

The other important driver for the new space projects mentioned above is that Australia has such a strong mining industry, and that so much mining innovation is created in Australia.




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As disciplines, space and mining have a lot in common: both involve complex engineering systems, work in hostile environments, and human control is increasingly handed over to autonomous robotics. Exploiting resources in space represents a genuine opportunity for Australia to establish a niche around which a sustainable space industry can be built.

So now is a perfect time for Australia to consider a new Moon mission. The industry is growing rapidly and a flagship mission would give it something around which to build.

Our special expertise in resource extraction offers a unique opportunity, which others have only just started to pursue. And a community of companies and researchers has been gathered for the task.

Hopefully it won’t be another 50 years before Australia has its own presence on the Moon.The Conversation

Andrew Dempster, Director, Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research; Professor, School of Electrical Engineering and Telecommunications, UNSW

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Why isn’t Australia in deep space?


David Flannery, Queensland University of Technology

This weekend marks 50 years exactly since humans first walked on the Moon. It also marks Australia’s small but significant role in enabling NASA to place boots on the lunar landscape – or at least to broadcast the event.

Those literally otherworldly images – beamed into countless schools, homes and workplaces – were at times routed through the Parkes Radio Telescope in New South Wales.




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Not one but two Aussie dishes were used to get the TV signals back from the Apollo 11 moonwalk


Thanks to a strong radioastronomy program dating back to the 1950s, a warm political relationship, and a geographically useful position in the Southern Hemisphere, Australian facilities have served NASA’s Deep Space Network for well over half a century.

The Spaceflight Operations Center at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where the Australian component of the Deep Space Network can often be seen relaying data.
NASA JPL/Caltech

Today, if you walk into the Spacecraft Operations Facility at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California (which served as backup control room for the Apollo missions), you’re sure to notice an Australian flag positioned near a monitor showing a live stream of data from the Deep Space Network. The symbol for the Australian relay flashes as data arrive from spacecraft orbiting objects in the inner Solar System, and from others operating beyond the orbit of Pluto.

Through the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex, Australia’s telescopes and tracking stations have played a role in every deep space mission since Apollo. However, our involvement is largely serendipitous rather than intentional, with generations of Australian governments having shown close to zero interest in space science.

Until the formation of the Australian Space Agency, almost 49 years to the day since the Parkes dish helped people everywhere watch the moon landings, Australia was the only OECD country without a national space agency.

Yet we were once a genuine space power. Australia was the third nation to launch a satellite from within its national borders, and the seventh overall. During the Apollo era, Woomera was the largest land-based test range in the Western world.

Notwithstanding a recently reinvigorated commercial light launch industry and a range of Earth observation and communications satellites, space science has followed a downward trajectory in Australia ever since. Deep space exploration in particular is viewed as the exclusive playground of superpowers, far too expensive for a middling nation.

Yet examples abound of smaller nations punching well above their weight in deep space. Take Canada, a country of comparable population and wealth to Australia, which has contributed numerous payloads to international missions. The Shuttle Remote Manipulator System, better known as the Canadarm, has worked on both the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station, inspiring a generation of robotics students along the way.

Canada’s Remote Manipulator System (RMS) seen from the Space Shuttle Discovery in 2005.
NASA

Canada will now build and operate a similar instrument on the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway, the first stepping stone for astronauts headed to Mars.

Canada will build a new arm for NASA’s Lunar Gateway space station (right).
NASA

Looking towards the next favourable launch window for Mars, which will occur in mid-2020, the United Arab Emirates (with a GDP less than a quarter of Australia’s) will launch its Mars orbiter. The European and Russian space agencies will launch a combined orbiter, lander and rover mission. China is on track to launch the first Chinese Mars rover in the same window, and shortly thereafter India will launch a new Mars orbiter based on the tremendously successful (and, at US$73 million, surprisingly affordable) Mars Orbiter Mission.

NASA’s upcoming Mars 2020 rover mission will carry contributions from France, Norway, Denmark and Italy, to name a few.

Norway has channelled its experience studying glaciers with ground-penetrating radar into a geophysical instrument that will peer below the Martian surface. The Danish Technical University has designed a new lens that can photograph objects the size of a grain of sand on Mars.

And that’s just Mars.




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These and many other nations have a front-row seat on multibillion-dollar missions designed to address some of the biggest questions in science. The experience gained will all but ensure they stay on board for yet more ambitious international collaborations in the future.

This sort of contribution is within Australia’s compass, and we are well placed to collaborate with established space powers including the US, Europe, Japan and China. As more of the Solar System is explored and settled by robots, missing out means losing our voice on space policy issues.

Now we have a national space agency, we can at least rebuild the legal framework needed for international collaboration, and develop technologies to pitch to future missions. One hurdle here is the chicken-and-egg problem of having no current product pipeline because of no previous funding.

Fortunately, despite the near-total absence of a local space industry for decades, there is a considerable contingent of Australian expats working in space agencies overseas. This valuable talent pool can hopefully be enticed home.

NASA is developing a nuclear-powered unmanned aerial vehicle for exploring the surface of Titan, one of Saturn’s moons.

A diverse and ambitious array of deep space missions is currently in development. Almost every part of the Solar System is receiving some attention. NASA is developing a lander to study organic molecules on Europa, and has just announced a nuclear-powered drone for exploring Titan. Numerous missions to comets, asteroids and Kuiper Belt Objects are in planning or already underway.

Where might Australia get the best bang for our buck? What’s the next “Moon shot”? After all, we might as well hitch our wagon to the largest beast in the yard.

Arguably, the next grand challenge is to bring Mars samples back to Earth. Both NASA and the Chinese Space Agency are planning missions that could culminate in achieving this during the 2030s.

NASA’s upcoming Mars 2020 Rover.
NASA JPL/Caltech

NASA’s Mars 2020 rover represents the first mission in that series – indeed, one of its instruments will carry out a chemical analysis project led by Australian geologist Abigail Allwood. I am another Australian involved in this mission, and our compatriot Adrian Brown is the Mars 2020 Deputy Program Scientist.

Samples from Mars, some of which will be older than any surviving rocks on Earth, will provide new insights into the evolution of our own planet. They may even answer the question of whether life has evolved elsewhere in the Solar System, and thus whether we are likely ever to encounter living organisms beyond Earth.

This 2.7 bilion-year-old stromatolite grew in a lake environment that was probably similar to the lake that formed the sediments in Jezero Crater on Mars – the landing site for NASA’s next flagship Mars rover mission.
David Flannery

Australia can help answer these kinds of questions, given our expertise in mining geology and remote sensing – not to mention studying the world’s oldest evidence for life on Earth: the ancient microbial fossils of Western Australia.

In this and in other deep space science opportunities, all we lack is the courage to imagine what is possible, and the confidence in our ability to succeed.The Conversation

David Flannery, Planetary Scientist, Queensland University of Technology

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

To be a rising star in the space economy, Australia should also look to the East



Diversifying its space partners could help Australia avoid getting pushed around by the space rivalry of China and the United States.
Alex Cherney/CSIRO/EPA

Nicholas Borroz, University of Auckland

The UK’s space agency is already planning for spaceflights to Australia, taking just 90 minutes. This week it announced the site of its first “spaceport”.

Where exactly a spacecraft might land in Australia is still anyone’s guess.

Australia wants to become a bona fide space power in the emerging space economy – exemplified by the rise of private space companies such as SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin and others.

But the UK Space Agency’s well-developed plans to build Europe’s first spaceport in Cornwall, southwest England, as well as another to launch rockets carrying micro-satellites in Sutherland, north Scotland, shows the Australian venture has a lot more groundwork to do.




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The Australian government founded the Australian Space Agency just one year ago. It is about to invest tens of millions of dollars in international space projects.

But right now, it could be argued, it has a large problem: How will Australia connect to the rest of the international space economy?

Focused on old friends

Before the Australian Space Agency was founded, Australia’s main international relations regarding outer space were with the United States and some European countries. It has long hosted ground stations for NASA and the European Space Agency.

It has cooperated with other international partners to a lesser extent. The most notable project is the Square Kilometre Array, an astronomy project being built in Australia and South Africa. International partners include Canada, China, India and New Zealand.

Though Australia has indicated it wants to “open doors internationally” for space partnerships, so far it has been focused on building up ties with its old friends in the US and Europe.

The Australian Space Agency has been talking to NASA about cooperation, including on NASA’s Lunar Gateway effort to build a permanent presence on the Moon. It has signed statements of strategic intent with Boeing and Lockheed Martin, two large American aerospace firms that are NASA contractors. A private northern Australian rocket launch company reports it is negotiating to launch NASA sounding rockets next year.




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The US communications firm Viasat plans to build a ground station near Alice Springs. American universities are the only foreign partners of Australia’s newly opened CubeSat and unmanned aerial vehicle research centre, CUAVA.

With the Europeans, the Australian Space Agency has signed memoranda of understanding with France and Britain. The Italian space company SITAEL has expanded to Adelaide, where the Australian Space Agency is based. The federal government’s new SmartSat cooperative research centre has a consortium of nearly 100 industry and research partners. One is the European aerospace giant Airbus, with which the Australian Space Agency has also signed a statement of strategic intent.

These are still early days, but outside of partnerships with the Americans and Europeans, the only major international developments since the Australian Space Agency’s founding are with Canada and the United Arab Emirates.

Ties with China and India

So should Australia diversify its relations?

On the one hand, tying Australia’s space economy to the Americans and Europeans makes sense. Both have large markets and developed space industries. Close ties to both will likely ensure a steady stream of business.

On the other hand, there are benefits to pursuing a new type of multilateralism that is less US- or Euro-centric.

Through the Square Kilometre Array project, Australia has links with China and India. Compared to the Americans and Europeans, these two countries have different competitive strengths in the global space industry.




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Positioning between them could put Australia in a unique place in the global production networks of space science and technology. This is particularly so if relations between some of these larger players are distant (the United States and China, for example). Australia could benefit from being a go-between.

Australia could also choose to supplement these larger relationships with ties to smaller countries. Especially with other new entrants into the space economy – New Zealand established a space agency in 2016, for example – there are common points of interest.

All are likely to want to diversify relationships with big space powers and not be pushed into dealing with just one or another. Again, friction between the United States and China comes to mind. Smaller space powers could band together to maintain their ability to make their own independent decisions.

There is no right answer about how Australia should proceed with international engagement in the space economy. More accurately, there are different right answers depending on what sort of space power Australia ultimately wants to become.

Australia’s space agency is just one year old. The country does not need to automatically continue its Western orientation. It can instead recreate itself as a truly international actor in the new space economy.The Conversation

Nicholas Borroz, PhD candidate in international business and comparative political economy, University of Auckland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.