The problems with small satellites – and what Australia’s Space Agency can do to help


Duncan Blake, University of Adelaide

Australia is part of the global explosion in space industries – including the design and engineering of satellites smaller than a loaf of bread.

But we’re at a point now where we need to take the next step.

The growing number of small satellites orbiting Earth presents some unique challenges, such as interference with communication networks, the buildup of space junk, and the legal questions that arise if something goes wrong.

Australia’s new Space Agency can play a vital role in coordinating our government policy around these issues.




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Acceleration in small sats

Since Sputnik 1 in 1957, there have been 8,303 registered space objects. Only 20 of those, so far, have been registered to Australia, but five satellites have been launched for Australia in just the past four weeks (although not all of them have been registered yet).

Fleet Space in Adelaide had two satellites launched from New Zealand, one from India and one from the United States. The University of New South Wales in Canberra had the M1 satellite launched on the same rocket as the Fleet Space satellite from the US.

Globally, there are almost 1,900 active satellites in orbit. That number is set to increase rapidly in the near future – regulators in the US alone have recently approved more than 12,000 new satellites to be launched into space over the next decade.

In Australia, Fleet Space plans to launch 100 satellites over the next decade.

The volume is growing, but the satellites are shrinking. We’ve moved from satellites the size of buses, to those similar in size to a washing machine, to cubesats (10x10x10cm), and even smaller still.




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Australia has committed itself to secure a large proportion of a global space market worth more than A$400 billion, tripling the Australian space industry from A$4 billion to A$12 billion and growing many thousands of jobs in the many new space start-ups in Australia.

That’s great news for the Australian economy, and the new Australian Space Agency has the mandate to make that happen.

Here’s where we need new policy around satellites to meet the challenges involved.

1. Congestion in signalling networks

Communication with your satellite is essential, even if communication is not its main purpose – to get data from remote sensing satellites, navigational satellites, experimental satellites, or just to track it, control it and monitor its status. But the use of radio frequency by small satellites has been hotly contested.

Big satellite manufacturers and operators, and others, oppose the allocation of frequency to small satellites through the international regulator – the International Telecommunications Union and its domestic equivalent – the Australian Communication and Media Authority (ACMA).

Notwithstanding that big satellite manufacturers and operators have a commercial incentive to oppose the disruptive upstarts, they have a point.

Small satellites don’t use less bandwidth in proportion to their small size (although they may transmit with less power). So, by their sheer number, they represent a significant risk of congestion and interference in the electromagnetic spectrum – leading to mobile phones not working properly, WiFi networks being degraded, and maybe even failure of your Netflix account.

The ACMA is seeking solutions to those potential problems, but if the solutions involve imposing significant technical and financial burdens on new space start-ups, these companies may go offshore to find better solutions – a loss for Australia.

2. The problem of space junk

Small satellites add to the space debris problem in outer space – because a significant proportion of them fail and not all of them follow international best practice (such as it is) on the operation of small satellites.

For example, US company Swarm Technologies went ahead with the launch of several very small satellites known as “Space Bees” via a launch on an Indian rocket even though the US Federal Communications Commission had previously declined to grant them a licence, on the basis that they were too small to be tracked, thereby making collision avoidance impossible.

SpaceFlight, a company that finds and facilitates launch opportunities for satellite operators, facilitated this opportunity for Swarm Technologies, and it was SpaceFlight that facilitated launch opportunities for the five Australian satellites launched in the last four weeks.

To be fair, Swarm Technologies and SpaceFlight have taken good steps to earn back the confidence of regulators in the US and globally, but it does demonstrate the need for clear and enforced best practice standards.

Unfortunately, there is a lack of consensus internationally on what those standards should be.

In Australia, our Space Agency has yet to decide on the content of subordinate legislation (Rules) under the new Space Activities (Launches and Returns) Act 2018 that may commit Australia to best practice standards for small satellites.

Again, there is a difficult balancing act – if the standards are too lax, there is a greater possibility of something going wrong and we lose reputation, influence, bargaining power and the opportunity to optimise international conditions for Australian commercial and other national interests.

If they are too strict, new space start-ups may find them unpalatable, and move their operations offshore – and the prospect of new jobs and economic growth in the industry dissipates.

3. Mistakes can happen

What happens if something does go wrong? Who bears the liability?

Under international law, in the first instance, liability rests with any state that launches, procures the launch or whose facility or territory is used for launch. Ultimately, that means the taxpayer.

A small satellite could conceivably be responsible for a failure at launch, or a collision in orbit, where there is infrastructure worth many hundreds of billions of dollars (not least, the International Space Station). Thankfully, the probability of any such failure or collision is generally extremely small.

But who accepts that risk of liability on behalf of the Australian taxpayer? For non-governmental operators, it is the Australian Space Agency.

Government operators are largely exempt from the legislation. Australia’s Department of Defence has been involved in the recent Buccaneer cubesat and the M1 cubesat, and CSIRO has recently initiated a project to acquire its own cubesat.

An artist’s impression of CSIROSat-1 CubeSat.
Inovor Technologies

There is the possibility of different standards within government and relative to the private sector. Australia’s Space Agency does not currently have a strong mandate to coordinate across all space activities in which our nation participates.

In the case of the Buccaneer cubesat and the M1 cubesat, the University of New South Wales in Canberra – which built and arranged the launch of the satellites – is subject to control by the Space Agency under legislation.

In other cases, the Space Agency will have to engage and influence others through excellent communication and soft influence. So far, the staff and leadership of the agency have managed that with great skill.

But there’s more work to be done.




Read more:
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The Conversation


Duncan Blake, PhD candidate, law and military uses of outer space, University of Adelaide

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

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Small sats are vital to Australia’s space industry – and they won’t be space junk



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Small satellites are launched to Low Earth Orbit – and then eventually burn up.
from www.shutterstock.com

Michael Smart, The University of Queensland

Today the federal government released its response to the review of Australia’s Space Capability.

Among the details regarding the establishment of Australia’s first space agency, and a national space industry strategy, it is clear that small satellites will have a place in our space future.

The following recommendations were marked as “supported” or “supported in principle”:

  • Australia should […] take advantage of the global space technology paradigm
    shift towards constellations of miniaturised spacecraft for communications and Earth observations

  • […] the Agency [should facilitate] regulatory approval processes for small satellite launch facilities in Australia and the launch of Australian satellites overseas.

But won’t all these new satellites just make the current space junk problem even worse?

Luckily, the answer is no. And it’s due to the satellite “self-cleaning zone” that surrounds Earth.




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How satellites stay in orbit

For a satellite to remain in orbit around Earth, it must have a velocity of at least 7.9km per second, and must not drop below approximately 200km altitude in any part of its orbit.

If its velocity or its orbit is too low, it will be drawn back to Earth by a combination of gravity and atmospheric drag.

Another key aspect of a satellite’s orbit is its inclination relative to the Equator. Equatorial orbits – when the orbit is around the Equator – have zero inclination. Polar orbits, on the other hand, pass over both the north and south poles, and have an inclination of 90 degrees.

Other orbits sit at inclinations between 0° and 90°. The orbit of the international space station, for example, has an inclination of 51.6°. So it passes over the parts of Earth that are within 51.6° of latitude north and south of the Equator. Its orbit has an average altitude of 400km. (For comparison, the radius of the Earth is 6,378 km.)

The orbit of the International Space Station.

Low orbits for small satellites

Until about the year 2000 almost all useful satellites (ones that performed functions such as communications or weather observation) were big – weighing as much as 10,000kg. They also tended to be in orbits with altitudes greater than 2,000km.

This has changed due to the rapid development of micro-scale, low-power electronics that we all use every day in our mobile phones. Satellites can now weigh just hundreds of kilograms and perform the same function in terms of communications and earth observation.

There is also a movement (including in Australia) towards even smaller satellites called “cubesats”, weighing less than 20kg, which have limited capability and life. One implication of this smaller size is the need to be close to Earth.

Modern small satellites are all in Low Earth Orbit, with altitudes less than 1,000km. For example, a company called Planet has a constellation of about 200 satellites which supply images of almost anywhere on the planet on a daily basis.

Polar (blue) and inclined (red) orbits around Earth.

The self-cleaning zone

Despite the fact that the edge of Earth’s atmosphere is generally considered to be at 100km altitude, in reality it reaches much higher. In practice, any satellite in Low Earth Orbit will eventually be slowed down by impacts with air molecules and will return to Earth in a fiery re-entry. This may seem like a significant limitation for small satellites. But actually it is extremely helpful.

Due in part to their size limitation, most small satellite have a useful life of between one and five years. After this time a replacement satellite with the latest technology must be launched. If it wasn’t for the fact that Low Earth Orbit is a self-cleaning zone, the small satellite revolution would clog up the space around us with junk.

So when you hear about another planned constellation of hundreds of satellites, don’t worry too much. So long as they are in Low Earth Orbit, and most likely they will be, the Earth’s “vacuum cleaner” will clean up after us.

But what about the International Space Station? It is also in the Low Earth Orbit zone – so its orbit needs to be continuously maintained, which requires significant reserves of fuel. At some point, however, it will suffer the same fate as the much smaller Chinese space station Tiangong-1 and make a fiery re-entry.


The Conversation


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Michael Smart, Professor of Hypersonic Aerodynamics, The University of Queensland

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

Australia relies on data from Earth observation satellites, but our access is high risk



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The NASA satellite Landsat-8 collects frequent global multispectral imagery of the Earth’s surface.
NASA

Stuart Phinn, The University of Queensland

This article is part of a series Australia’s place in space, where we’ll explore the strengths and weaknesses, along with the past, present and the future of Australia’s space presence and activities.


Rockets, astronomy and humans on Mars: there’s a lot of excited talk about space and what new discoveries might come if Australia’s federal government commits to expanding Australia’s space industry.

But one space industry is often left out of the conversation: Earth observation (EO).


Read more: Why it’s time for Australia to launch its own space agency


EO refers to the collection of information about Earth, and delivery of useful data for human activities. For Australia, the minimum economic impact of EO from space-borne sensors alone is approximately A$5.3 billion each year.

And yet the default position of our government seems to be that the provision of EO resources will come from other countries’ investments, or commercial partners.

This means the extensive Commonwealth-state-local government and industry reliance on access to EO services remains a high-risk.

What is EO (Earth observation)?

You’ve almost certainly relied on EO at some point already today.

The wide range of government, industry and societal uses of Earth observation in Australia.
Australian Earth Observation Community Coordination Plan 2026

EO describes the activities used to gather data about the Earth from satellites, aircraft, remotely piloted systems and other platforms. It delivers information for our daily weather and oceanographic forecasts, disaster management systems, water and power supply, infrastructure monitoring, mining, agricultural production, environmental monitoring and more.

Global positioning and navigation, communications and information derived from satellites looking at, and away from Earth are referred to as “downstream” space activities.

“Upstream” activities are the industries building infrastructure (satellites, sensors), launch vehicles and ground facilities for operating space-based equipment. In this arena, countries such as Russia focus on building, launching and operating satellites and space craft. Others (such as Canada, Italy, UK) target developing industries and government activities that use these services. The US and China maintain a balance.

Components of Australia’s Earth-observation space capabilities (click to zoom for a clearer view)
Australian Earth Observation Community Coordination Plan 2026, Author provided

Australia spends very little on space

Although we rely so heavily on downstream space activities in our economic and other operations, Australia invests very little in space: only 0.003% of GDP, according to 2014 figures.

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Other countries have taken very proactive roles in enabling these industries to develop. Most government space agencies around the world invest 11% to 51% of their funds for developing EO capacity. These investments allow industries and government to build downstream applications and services from secure 24/7 satellite data streams.

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Historically, Australia has invested heavily in research and research infrastructure to produce world leading capabilities in the science of astronomy, space-debris tracking and space exploration communications.

In EO there are no comparable national programs or infrastructure, nor have we contributed to international capability at the same levels as these areas. This seems strange given:

  • our world leading status in applied research and extensive government use of these data as fully operational essential and critical information streams
  • all of the reports requesting increases in government support and enabling for “space” industry cite our reliance on EO as essential, but then don’t present paths forward for it
  • there are now a number of well established and growing small companies focused on delivering essential environmental, agricultural, grazing, energy supply and infrastructure monitoring services using EO, and
  • we have a well organised EO community across research, industry and government, with a clearly articulated national strategic plan to 2026.
Example of an information delivery service built from Earth observation data streams to deliver property level information to graziers and others land-holders (click to zoom for a clearer view).
P Tickle, FarmMap4D, Author provided

Building Australia’s EO capacity

EO plays a vital role in many aspects of Australian life. Australia’s state and Commonwealth agencies, along with research institutions and industry have already built essential tools to routinely deliver satellite images in a form that can be developed further by private industry and delivered as services.

But our lack of a coordinating space agency adds a layer of fragility to vital EO operations as they currently stand.


Read more: The 50 year old space treaty needs adaptation


This places a very large amount of Commonwealth, state and local government activity, economic activity and essential infrastructure at risk, as multiple recent national reviews have noted.

Our federal government started to address the problem with its 2013 Satellites Utilisation Policy, and will hopefully build on this following the current rounds of extensive consultation for the Space Industry Capability Review.

Although our private EO upstream and downstream industry capabilities are currently small, they are world leading, and if they were enabled with government-industry support in a way that the Canadian Space Agency, the European Space Agency/European Commission and UK Space Agency do, we could build this sector.

If Australia is to realistically participate in the “Space 2.0” economy, we need to act now and set clear goals for the next five, ten and 20 years. EO can be a pillar for this activity, enabling significant expansion of our upstream and downstream industries. This generates jobs and growth and addresses national security concerns.

That should be a win for all sectors in Australia – and we can finally give back and participate globally in space.


The ConversationData sources for figure “Proportion of space budget spent on different capacities”: NASA; ESA – here and here; JAXA; PDF report on China.

Stuart Phinn, Professor of Geography, Director – Remote Sensing Research Centre, Chair – Australian Earth Observation Community Coordination Group, The University of Queensland

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

SPACE: SATELLITES CRASH


In out of this world news, two satellites have crashed in orbit around the earth. The accident occurred 800 km above Siberia on Wednesday according to NASA. A massive debris cloud resulted from the collision of the two satellites.

The collision occurred between an Iridium commercial satellite (launched in 1997) and an obsolete Russian satellite (launched in 1993).