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.

A sports car and a glitter ball are now in space – what does that say about us as humans?


Alice Gorman, Flinders University

Two controversial objects have recently been launched in space, and their messages couldn’t be more different.

One is Elon Musk’s red sports car, a symbol of elite wealth and masculinity, hurtling towards Mars.

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The other is a glittering geodesic sphere in Earth orbit, designed to give humans a shared experience and a sense of our place in the universe: the Humanity Star.

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A red car for a red planet

On February 6 2018, Musk’s private space company SpaceX launched the much-vaunted Falcon Heavy rocket from Kennedy Space Centre – from the same launch pad as Apollo 11 in 1969.

It’s a test launch carrying a dummy payload: Musk’s own personal midnight cherry Roadster, a sports car made by his Tesla company. The driver, dubbed Starman, is a mannequin in a SpaceX spacesuit.




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For the ultimate road trip soundtrack, the car is playing David Bowie’s Space Oddity.

The car will enter an elliptical solar orbit, its furthest point from the Sun around the distance of Mars.

Musk thinks of it as future space archaeology.

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Reactions include waxing lyrical about the speed the car will reach, lamenting the lost opportunity for a scientific experiment, and celebrating it as an inspirational act of whimsy.

Fear of flying

The Tesla Roadster might be an expendable dummy payload, but it’s primary purpose is symbolic communication. There’s a lot going on here.

There’s an element of performing excessive wealth by wasting it. Giving up such an expensive car (a new model costs US$200,000) could be seen as a sacrifice for space, but it’s also like burning $100 notes to show how how little they mean.

In the 1960s, anthropologist Victor Turner argued that symbols can encompass two contradictory meanings at the same time. Thus, the sports car in orbit symbolises both life and death. Through the body of the car, Musk is immortalised in the vacuum of space. The car is also an armour against dying, a talisman that quells a profound fear of mortality.

The spacesuit is also about death. It’s the essence of the uncanny: the human simulacrum, something familiar that causes uneasiness, or even a sense of horror. The Starman was never alive, but now he’s haunting space.

In a similar vein, the red sports car symbolises masculinity – power, wealth and speed – but also how fragile masculinity is. Stereotypically, the red sports car is the accessory of choice in the male mid-life crisis, which men use to rebel against perceived domestication.

A related cultural meme holds that owning a sports car is over-compensation. Have we just sent the equivalent of a dick pic into space?

Space graffiti

The brainchild of Peter Beck (founder of the New Zealand-based Rocket Lab), the Humanity Star was launched on 21 January 2018, but kept a secret until after it had successfully reached orbit.

In contrast to the lean and slightly aggressive lines of the sports car, the Humanity Star is a geodesic sphere of silver triangular panels. It’s a beach ball, a moon, a BB8, a space age sculpture. Its round shape is friendly and reassuring.

Similar satellites – with reflective surfaces designed for bouncing lasers – are orbiting Earth right now. But this satellite doesn’t have a scientific purpose. It’s only function is to be seen from Earth as its bright faces tumble to catch the light.

Astronomers weren’t happy, saying that it would confuse astronomical observations. It was even called “space graffiti”, implying that its visual qualities marred the “natural” night sky. Some lambasted Rocket Lab for contributing to the orbital debris problem. Instead of inspiration, they saw pollution.

Through the looking glass

Beck wants people to engage with the Humanity Star. In his words,

My hope is that everyone looking up at the Humanity Star will look past it to the expanse of the universe, feel a connection to our place in it and think a little differently about their lives, actions and what is important.

Wait for when the Humanity Star is overhead and take your loved ones outside to look up and reflect. You may just feel a connection to the more than seven billion other people on this planet we share this ride with.




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This is the “Overview Effect” in reverse. We can’t all go to space and see the whole blue marble of the Earth from outside, inspiring a new consciousness of how much we are all together in the same boat. Beck has tried to create a similar feeling of a united Earth by looking outwards instead.

In nine months or so, the Humanity Star will tumble back into the atmosphere to be consumed. It will leave no trace of its passage through orbit.

The medium is the message

Ultimately, these orbiting objects are messages about human relationships with space. Both objects were launched by private corporations, inviting Earthbound people to share the journey. However, one reinforces existing inequalities, while the other promotes a hopeful vision of unity.

Beck and Musk’s intentions are irrelevant to how the symbols are interpreted by diverse audiences. Symbols can be multivalent, contradictory, and fluid – their meanings can change over time, and in different social contexts.

The ConversationEvery object humans have launched into the solar system is a statement: each tells the story of our attitudes to space at a particular point in time.

Alice Gorman, Senior Lecturer in archaeology and space studies, Flinders University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.