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.




Read more:
Trash or treasure? A lot of space debris is junk, but some is precious heritage


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


Read more:
China’s falling space station highlights the problem of space junk crashing to Earth


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

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

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Budget 2018: space agency details still scant – but GPS and satellite imagery funded


Anthony Wicht, University of Sydney

The Federal Government has announced $41 million of funding to kickstart the Australian space sector over the next four years.

The $41 million of funding is allocated across:

  • establishing the national space agency ($26 million over four years – $5.7 million in 2018/19, $9.8 million in 2019/20, $11.8 million in 2020/21 and $13.7 million in 2021/22)

  • international space investment ($15 million for grants over three years).

As expected, the funding establishes a national space agency, and ex-CSIRO head Dr Megan Clark is tipped to serve as the inaugural head.




Read more:
Infographic: Budget 2018 at a glance


The surprise in the budget is the around $260 million investment in applying satellite data to Australia – mostly in precise positioning but also in satellite imagery.

The applications of space technology cover:

  • $225 million for precise positioning technology that makes GPS signals accurate to centimetres, not metres, which unlocks efficiency and automation possibilities in agriculture, mining and transport

  • $36.9 million to improve “Digital Earth Australia”, a platform that assembles global satellite images of Australia in a user-friendly and publicly accessible way.

End to ambivalence

This budget marks the first time Australia has had an official space agency, and puts an end to decades of Australian ambivalence towards civilian space.


Timeline of key events in Australia’s space activities from 1957-2018: click on arrows at right and left to go back and forth.

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Adapted with permission from Kerrie Dougherty – this timeline first appeared in her review of Australia’s space activities in 2017.


The emphasis on industry shows the agency’s mission is to enable the growing Australian space sector to strut its stuff on a global stage.

The space industry is worth more than A$400 billion per year, and plays an increasingly vital link in civil and military activity.

The government’s concept of a space agency is as an economic and national security play – it is not aimed as a catch-up attempt to lavishly funded international peers like NASA.

With this budget, the government is trying to walk a fine line between enabling successful Australian businesses in the high-tech space game, and creating a sector dependent on government largesse.




Read more:
Space Agency for Australia: here’s why it’s important


Four key aims of the space agency

The $41 million over four years is about the minimum viable amount to start towards these goals. Sensibly spent, it is enough to achieve the core aims of an Australian agency.

International credibility for Australian space: Australian space businesses bidding for international work dread the question “why doesn’t Australia have an agency?” as it’s often the prelude to “without an agency it’s just too risky for us to work together”. A funded agency takes this objection off the table and levels the playing field.

Support for Australian business: Early-stage grants to help businesses prove concepts – for example, to build a launch-ready small satellite – are within the means of this budget. This will help Australian startups cross the “valley of death” from concept to export-ready, space-tested hardware.

Federal and international coordination: A mix of state and federal agencies have a hand in civilian space activities; a funded agency will help impose order domestically and serve as a focal point for international engagement with other space agencies.

Long term strategic planning for the sector: Space is a long lead-time business. The agency will be responsible for strategic planning for the sector. The money will give its plans clout and an ability to nudge startups and universities into growth areas through funding allocations.

This is not the sort of funding for an agency that will be hiring engineers and building its own spacecraft. Most of the money will be spent in partnerships with commercial companies and universities to help get new ideas and good companies off the ground.

Some will be spent with international agencies to give Australia a “seat at the table” and a chance to bid for international contracts. These partnerships are the likely role of the $15 million earmarked for space investment.

The budget is light on detail and there are many unanswered questions, including:

  • what areas will Australia focus on?

  • where will key parts of the agency be located?

  • what will the future of the agency look like after the four years?

The ConversationI look forward to seeing these details in the near future.

Anthony Wicht, Alliance 21 Fellow (Space) at the United States Studies Centre, University of Sydney

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

Space Agency for Australia: here’s why it’s important



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Australia’s Space Agency and its journey to the stars.
The Conversation/Cindy Zhi, CC BY-ND

Michael Lund, The Conversation

More details on the federal government’s commitment to establish an Australian Space Agency are expected in next week’s budget.

In his budget speech on Tuesday, Treasurer Scott Morrison is tipped to allocate A$50 million to help establish the agency.

Former CSIRO boss Megan Clark will reportedly head the agency for its first year. She is chair of the Expert Reference Group, part of the government’s review of Australia’s space industry capability.

Following a period of consultation, the group earlier this year delivered its final strategy to the government on how the agency should take shape.

The campaign to get a space agency for Australia has been running for years, and has been extensively covered by The Conversation.

1. Why Australia needs a space agency

Back in August 2013, Andrew Dempster, director of the Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research UNSW, highlighted the problem, arguing there was a hole in the Australian public administration where a space agency should be.

He pointed to a 2009 Senate report that noted then that Australia was the only Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) country to lack a space agency.

Dempster outlined ten reasons why he and others believed Australia needed a space agency. Apart from helping to secure funding, and giving Australia access to other space agencies, one of the key arguments was to keep our space experts and engineers in Australia.

He said the UK space agency allowed it to set goals on how it could be part of a global space economy likely to be worth some £400 billion by 2030:

The absolute best Australian students are being attracted to space at the undergraduate level, and goals like that will provide them with somewhere to work – here.

So there are plenty of reasons to establish a space agency – otherwise, Australia will remain “lost in space”.




Read more:
Ten reasons why Australia urgently needs a space agency


2. More lessons from the UK

A year later, in July 2014, Dempster and UNSW colleagues Barnaby Osborne and Elias Aboutanios argued again the lessons that could be learned from the UK’s space agency.

They highlighted the pressure from space industry leaders for better UK government support, and a goal to capture 10% of the global space market.

The UK Space Agency was eventually established in 2010 with an ambition to meet that 10% target.

If the UK can do it, why not Australia? But just how much of the global space market does Australia have?

Not a lot, said Dempster, Osborne and Aboutanios in The Conversation:

Australia has so far captured only about A$1.2 billion or just 0.37% of the existing market.

Clearly more needed to be done if Australia was to improve on that share, hence the need to look to the UK’s case for ideas on how to gain government support for a space agency here.




Read more:
Investing in space: what the UK Space Agency can teach Australia


3. A space agency announced

In September last year the federal government finally said Australia would get a space agency.

Senator Simon Birmingham made the initial announcement in front of thousands of international delegates at the International Aeronautical Congress in Adelaide.

Among those to react to the announcement was Andrew Dempster who said:

This announcement has the potential to be monumental, and great reward for people (including me) who have fought for an agency for many years.

Details on what role the agency would take were still to be worked out but Graziella Caprarelli, associate professor in space science at UniSA, could see the potential for jobs and the economy:

…the long-term sustainability of a space industry in Australia will critically depend on the availability of local talent, steady supply of expertise, and the manufacturing and technical skills required to bring Australia to space.




Read more:
Yes, Australia will have a space agency. What does this mean? Experts respond


4. What sort of space agency?

So a commitment was made to an Australian space agency. But what sort of space agency did people want?

The Expert Reference Group was taking submissions and plenty of people and organisations were prepared to have their say on future role of the agency.

In November last year, Anthony Wicht, an
Alliance 21 Fellow (Space) at the United States Studies Centre, University of Sydney, outlined his vision for an agency:

My five steps to an effective agency are: include both “new” and “old” space, give the agency actual power, make the most of the space “brain drain” and work cooperatively with the Department of Defence.

He said space was already attracting investment with Venture capital funding and a number of small businesses already focused on the space sector.

But he too was keen to see an agency help retain Australia’s space experts, and see a return of the wealth of Australians who have gone overseas to pursue space careers.




Read more:
Five steps Australia can take to build an effective space agency


5. A place to call home

One of the issues still to be resolved is where any space agency would be based.

Andrew Dempster, from UNSW, and Alice Gorman, a senior lecturer in archaeology and space studies, at Flinders University, picked up the argument.

Clearly there is going to be much interest from many states and territories as to the ideal location for the agency, because that means jobs said Gorman:

People probably are thinking it will be something like NASA, with a whole industrial complex. We’re not anything like that scale. Having said that, a Canberra-based headquarters supported by state-based centres makes a lot of sense.

Dempster agreed that a Canberra location for part of the agency would give it an advantage:

In terms of location, I agree there will need to be an administrative presence in Canberra, to interact with the Federal Government. Other satellite sites should reflect where the action is.

If there are to be satellite offices, they need to be close to where the industry is currently active, and where it is developing. This may require some sort of representation in each state.




Read more:
What we’re looking for in Australia’s Space Agency: views from NSW and SA


There are still plenty of unknowns at this stage and it’s hoped that further details will be revealed once the funding for the space agency is confirmed in Tuesday’s budget.

The ConversationThe Conversation will continue to bring you expert reaction and analysis once those details are known, so watch this space (sic).

Michael Lund, Deputy Editor: Science + Technology, The Conversation

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

NASA’s planet-hunting spacecraft TESS is now on its mission to search for new worlds



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NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) successfully launched on a SpaceX Falcon 9.
NASA Television

Jonti Horner, University of Southern Queensland

The latest of NASA‘s incredible planet-hunting space telescopes was launched today from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

Known as the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (or TESS to its friends), this exciting new mission promises to provide the next great leap forward in our understanding of our place in the universe.

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Over the next two years, TESS is likely to find thousands of new exoplanets – planets orbiting distant stars – and will help to reveal the degree to which our Solar system is unique in the cosmos.




Read more:
Google’s artificial intelligence finds two new exoplanets missed by human eyes


In doing so, it will build on the fascinating results of the past few decades, cementing our place in the “Exoplanet Era”.

Illustration of NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) in front of a lava planet orbiting its host star.
NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

The Kepler revolution

At the end of 2008, the year before NASA’s earlier planet-hunting telescope Kepler launched, about 300 exoplanets had been discovered. Today, the number is an order of magnitude larger: more than 3,700.

Kepler discovered more than 2,300 exoplanets, with a further 2,200 or so “candidate” planets still awaiting followup. This incredible haul is the result of the spacecraft staring, unblinking, at the night sky, watching for the tiny flickers that reveal planets passing between us and their host stars.

An illustration of NASA’s Kepler spacecraft that carried out the first great census of the Exoplanet Era.
NASA Ames/ W Stenzel

In essence, Kepler carried out the first great census of the Exoplanet Era. It taught us that planets are ubiquitous – a standard and natural byproduct of the formation of stars.

But the vast majority of the stars around which Kepler found planets were very faint and very distant. This makes it a great challenge for observers on the ground to follow up on those discoveries and learn more about the planets the spacecraft revealed.

Along comes TESS

Whereas Kepler focused for four years on just one small patch of the northern sky, TESS will target stars across almost the whole night sky. In doing so, it will survey some of the brightest stars in the sky – making the task of following up on its myriad discoveries far easier.

TESS consists of four cameras, configured to give it an observation sector that covers an area slightly larger than a 90° arc on the sky.

Image showing how TESS’ four cameras will be used to survey the night sky, sector by sector.
NASA

TESS will watch that observation sector continually for just over 27 days, never blinking. The spacecraft will then pivot around, swinging to target its next sector.

In this manner, over the course of a year, the spacecraft will target almost the entirety of one hemisphere of the sky. After that, it will flip over, and spend the next year watching the other hemisphere.

TESS will cover much more than Kepler in its hunt for exoplanets.

For the first year TESS will be gazing to the south, scouring skies that are best seen from the southern hemisphere, finding planets orbiting the very stars you see when you step outside and look up at the night sky, right here in Australia.

Many stars, many planets?

TESS’s main mission will involve it observing a total of 200,000 stars, measuring their brightness every single minute that they fall within its field of view. To do this, it will process images before sending them back to Earth, extracting just the data on those stars to send back to the Earth.

TESS will also provide full-frame images (a picture of the spacecraft’s full field of view) every half an hour, yielding a trove of tens of millions of objects observed.

TESS will process data on board the spacecraft, to make the amount sent back to Earth manageable.
NASA

Put all that together, and the expected planet yield should be enormous. Based on the statistics of planet discoveries to date, it is likely that TESS will find at least a couple of thousand potential planets around its main target stars, while those in the full-frame images might yield tens of thousands of additional candidates.

These numbers are incredible, and TESS will revolutionise our understanding of our place in the universe. But such amazing results bring with them a unique problem – and one that we, in Australia, are ideally placed to help solve.

Too many planets, too little time

The reason that only half of the Kepler mission’s candidate planets have been confirmed is that doing so requires extensive follow-up work from the ground.

Astronomers have to rule out other effects that could cause the behaviour seen in the potential planet’s host star before we can be certain that we’re really seeing evidence of a new planet.

Most of the stars observed by Kepler are simply too faint for that kind of work to be carried out from the ground – except, perhaps, with the largest telescopes on the planet. Getting time on those telescopes is challenging – all of the world’s other astronomers covet that time too, for their own projects.

Quite simply, it is a case of too many planets, too little time.

Too many potential exoplanets, too little time.
NASA, ESA, and M. Kornmesser (ESO)

The problem is only going to get worse with TESS. When the first few planets were found, in the late 20th century, the discoveries came in a trickle. Those discoveries were easy for scientists to drink in and follow up, and all was good.

With Kepler, the discovery rate went through the roof. From a trickle, it was like someone had turned on a tap – a continual stream of new potential planets to study.

If Kepler was a tap, then TESS will be a fire hose, and there are simply too few telescopes available for us to use to study all of the planets TESS finds at once.

That is where the Australian connection comes to the fore – in the form of a dedicated new facility being built on the Darling Downs, in southeast Queensland.

The Australian connection – MINERVA-Australis

At the University of Southern Queensland, we are constructing MINERVA-Australis – a collection of six telescopes dedicated to nothing but the search for and characterisation of planets around other stars.

When TESS turns on the fire hose, finding thousands of planets in the southern sky, we stand ready. Every clear night, we will be observing those stars that TESS suggests could host planets, doing our utmost to confirm whether those planets really exist.




Read more:
We’ve found an exo-planet with an extraordinarily eccentric orbit


Once we confirm TESS’s new discoveries, we will be able to use our facility to study the newly found worlds in more detail. By observing the planet’s transits, we can measure its physical size, by seeing how much of the light from its host the planet blocks.

In addition, we will be examining the light we receive from the star, measuring the telltale wobbles caused by the planet as it orbits its host. With those measurements, we will be able to calculate the planet’s mass.

Put the mass and the size together, and we can really begin to work out the planet’s true nature. Is it rocky (like the Earth), or gaseous, like Jupiter and Saturn?

Over the coming years, TESS will push the Exoplanet Era through its next great revolution – finding thousands or tens of thousands of new exoplanets. Here in southeast Queensland, we will be at the forefront of that journey of discovery, helping to reveal the true nature of those alien worlds.

The ConversationI don’t know about you, but I can’t wait to see what we’ll learn next!

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

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

What we’re looking for in Australia’s Space Agency: views from NSW and SA



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We’re all waiting to hear what shape Australia’s Space Agency will take.
from www.shutterstock.com

Andrew Dempster, UNSW and Alice Gorman, Flinders University

It’s been a long time coming, but Australia is finally going to have a Space Agency. This will enable Australian space industries to benefit from agency-to-agency agreements and collaborations, and facilitate our participation in the growing global space market.

The Federal Government appointed an Expert Review Panel to map out how the Agency should operate. As we wait for its report – the final strategy was scheduled to be submitted in March 2018 – two space experts offer their perspectives on what we might expect.




Read more:
Lost in space: Australia dwindled from space leader to also-ran in 50 years


What will an Australian Space Agency need in terms of people, resources and infrastructure?

Andrew Dempster:

It seems clear there is a real appetite on both sides of politics for an agency for our times, that embraces the excitement being generated by “Space 2.0” – that is, commercial entities, low-cost access to space and avoiding some of the baggage of the older legacy agencies.

It’s likely the focus will be on growing the Australian space industry, with less emphasis on space exploration, human space flight and space science. However, for the agency to have any impact or credibility, the people, resources and infrastructure must be provided at an adequate level.

I have in the past pointed to the UK agency as a good model – it basically cost “nothing” initially and significant funding followed when it succeeded. Now, I don’t think we can afford to replicate this in Australia. The agency needs to be properly funded from the beginning. Penny-pinching will kill it.




Read more:
Investing in space: what the UK Space Agency can teach Australia


Alice Gorman:

We’ve been here before and seen how a lack of resourcing plays out. The 1980s Australian Space Board was managed by a small office within the Department of Industry, Technology and Commerce, but it fizzled out after ten years and we were back to square one. There’s a strong feeling in the Australian space community that a substantial investment in a stand-alone agency is the only way to avoid another death by bureaucracy.

In terms of personnel, we’ll need leadership with credibility and experience in the global space arena, people familiar with how existing space activities across government departments work, and probably there’ll be a role for some kind of advisory or expert panels.

The structure will also be important. NASA, for example, runs 11 research centres, and the European Space Agency has nine centres or facilities, including the Kourou launch site in French Guiana. They support human spaceflight programs as well as deep space exploration. Both organisations use private contractors, and large chunks of the private space sector rely on them as clients. This is not a model that Australia can sustain.

Personally, I think it’s critical that the new agency also takes Indigenous interests on board. Indigenous people can’t be left out of conversations about the future of Australian space technologies.




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How strongly should the Space Agency be linked with Defence programs?

Andrew Dempster:

Recently the Australian Strategic Policy Institute argued that we must develop a solid space industry for our own strategic and Defence needs. However, strong industries such as that in the US have a dominant civilian space sector.

So I would argue that to avoid this strategic weakness, it is more important to reinforce the independence of the civilian agency from Defence. It is the job of the agency to ensure this independence. Being overly close to Defence is likely to hamper the current civilian commercial drive so effectively being driven by the start-up community. Having a thriving civilian space sector can only benefit Defence anyway.

Alice Gorman:

I agree with Andrew that forging a new civil and commercial space identity is essential.

Because the Woomera rocket launch site, one of our most significant space assets, is located in South Australia, as well as the Defence Science and Technology Group – which grew out of the Cold War weapons program – South Australia has traditionally been the focus of Defence-related space activities.

A recent rocket launch from Woomera, South Australia.
Defence Image Gallery

At this stage we can be hopeful that a properly funded space agency will allow equal participation across all states.

Where should Australia’s Space Agency be located?

Alice Gorman:

There’s interest in where the agency will be located because there will be jobs associated with it. I’ve had so many enquiries from acquaintances – and strangers – asking about this.

People probably are thinking it will be something like NASA, with a whole industrial complex. We’re not anything like that scale. Having said that, a Canberra-based headquarters supported by state-based centres makes a lot of sense.

Andrew Dempster:

I’ve written a lot about Australia’s space agency, and recently I outlined an example of why a federal approach is essential: using space assets to monitor the Murray Darling Basin to avoid water theft.




Read more:
Preventing Murray-Darling water theft: a space agency can help Australia manage federal resources


In terms of location, I agree there will need to be an administrative presence in Canberra, to interact with the Federal Government. Other satellite sites should reflect where the action is.

If there are to be satellite offices, they need to be close to where the industry is currently active, and where it is developing. This may require some sort of representation in each state.

Senator Kim Carr’s recent announcement of Labor’s policy of several hubs and centres lends itself very well to distributed activity around the country. Bipartisanship on that issue would be very helpful.

Which Australian states have relevant space capabilities right now?

Alice Gorman:

I live in South Australia, so am naturally well acquainted with this state’s space achievements! A number of exciting new start-ups such as Fleet, Neumann Space and Myriota are based in Adelaide.

The South Australian Space Industry Centre funds space accelerator and incubator programs. Every year, we host the International Space University Southern Hemisphere Space Studies Program.




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


The three universities in South Australia have strengths in satellite telecommunications, space law and space heritage. At the international level, South Australia has been developing relationships with the French national space agency (CNES), as well as French aerospace industries.

Andrew Dempster

I am from NSW so I have a particular interest in the NSW Department of Industry submission to the expert review panel. It suggested “the future Australian Space Agency should be based in NSW” and goes on to list 17 reasons why NSW dominates in space, such as having the largest space workforce, revenue, research effort, number of start-ups, venture capital and law presence.

The only centre funded by the Australian Research Council on space is in NSW, and two of the four satellites built and launched last year involved my university.

However, I don’t believe there is any benefit to highlighting one state over another. I’m with Raytheon Australia, whose official position is that state rivalry for Defence work is getting “hysterical” and we should be avoiding that with space work.




Read more:
Three new reports add clarity to Australia’s space sector, a ‘crowded and valuable high ground’


Really exciting things are happening in space all over Australia. Australia’s launch company Gilmour Space Technologies operates out of Queensland. A lot of space start-ups are being nurtured by Moonshot X in Victoria. Western Australia boasts the Desert Fireball Network and the only Australian picosat (small satellite) developer, Picosat Systems. The ACT hosts the large testing facility, the Advanced Instrumentation and Technology Centre.

Alice Gorman:

Back in 1958, the beginning of the Space Age, Australia was one of the founding members of the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space. We’ve been kind of missing in action ever since.

The ConversationThe new Space Agency will allow us to have a credible voice on issues that may impact Australia – such as revisions to the international space treaties. It’s going to be exciting times ahead!

Andrew Dempster, Director, Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research; Professor, School of Electrical Engineering and Telecommunications, UNSW and Alice Gorman, Senior Lecturer in archaeology and space studies, Flinders University

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

With China’s space station about to crash land, who’s responsible if you get hit by space junk?



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An artist’s impression of Tiangong-1 in orbit.
Aerospace Corporation

Melissa de Zwart, University of Adelaide

The defunct Chinese space station Tiangong-1 is falling back to Earth and about to crash land some time over the next few days. Most experts expect much of it to burn up as it enters the atmosphere, but it is likely that some pieces of the 8.5-tonne station will survive re-entry.

While the odds of the debris falling on a person are small, you may ask: who is liable in the event of damage caused by a space object to a person or property?

Under international law, a State is liable for damage caused by its “space objects” to another State or its space objects. Liability arises under the provisions of the Outer Space Treaty, which deals both with State responsibility for activities in outer space and the attribution of liability where damage has been caused by a space object.




Read more:
China’s falling space station highlights the problem of space junk crashing to Earth


The Outer Space Treaty is an international agreement, which came into force in October 1967, has more than 100 member countries, including Australia and perhaps more importantly China.

Rules and liability

The Treaty provides the basic rules of use of outer space by nation States. It requires them to carry on activities in the exploration and use of outer space, in accordance with international law and in the interest of promoting international co-operation and understanding.

States who are parties to that Treaty “shall bear international responsibility for national activities in outer space” regardless of whether those activities are undertaken by or on behalf of the government or by non-government entities.

This is important as it imposes liability on States who are party to the Treaty, rather than the corporations or entities who are launching or operating the space object.

In other words, national governments are responsible to the international community for activities undertaken with respect to space activities by their nationals, whether the launch occurs from that State or not. They are also responsible for launches from their territory by foreign entities.

That means Australia is still responsible for the Australian-built satellites launched last year even though they were launched from Cape Canaveral, in the US.

States will be liable for damage to another State who is party to the Outer Space Treaty caused by the space object or its parts, on Earth and in air and outer space. This includes damage to people, property and corporations.

Thankfully Europe’s space freighter ATV Jules Verne burned up over an uninhabited area of the Pacific Ocean at the end of its mission.

Damages and compensation

No guidance is given under the Treaty regarding how liability for the damage is to be calculated. But a further treaty, called the Liability Convention, provides some further guidance.

The Liability Convention provides in Article II that a “launching state” will be:

(…) absolutely liable to pay compensation for damage caused by its space object on the surface of the Earth or to aircraft in flight.

This high standard of absolute liability reflects what were perceived by the drafters of the treaty as particularly vulnerable parties. People and property on Earth and aircraft in flight cannot avoid or reduce their potential harm from space from catastrophic launch failure or space debris.

But where damage is caused other than on the surface of the Earth or aircraft in flight the principle of fault is applied. The Convention does not elaborate on how fault is to be determined.

On Earth we are used to applying principles of negligence to accidents involving people or property. Negligence considers issues such as the potential of harm occurring, the foreseeability of that harm and whether sufficient measures were taken to reduce or avoid that harm.

It is not clear if these sorts of calculations exist with respect to space.

What is clear is that the Convention is intended to be “victim-oriented”. Claims for damage may relate to any harm caused by the space object including direct and indirect harm.

Article XII says compensation is to be determined on the basis that it should restore the person:

(…) to the condition which would have existed if the damage had not occurred.

But it wasn’t our fault

What about where objects collide in space causing harm to a third party? In this case liability may be shared by the launching States of the colliding space objects, again in accordance with their respective fault, where the damage is in space, absolutely if the damage is on Earth or an aircraft in flight.

Some exceptions exist where the State making the claim with respect to harm is actually responsible for that harm, through its own gross negligence or an intention to cause harm.

There has only been one claim made under the Liability Convention. The Government of Canada made a CA$6 million claim for compensation to the Soviet Union after its Cosmos 954, a nuclear powered satellite, crashed in Northern Canada on January 24, 1978.

While the final, diplomatically negotiated settlement of CA$3 million, did not specifically mention the Liability Convention, it is generally considered that the settlement was negotiated in the context of the Convention. Those costs related to clean up of the contaminated site in such a remote area.




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In 1979 debris from NASA’s Skylab fell to Earth in Western Australia. NASA advertised for claims with respect to damage caused by the debris, but no State-based claims were formally made under the Liability Convention.

There were some claims regarding illegal dumping: the local Shire of Esperance issued NASA with a A$400 littering fine. It was eventually paid in 2003 by a US radio presenter and his listeners who raised the funds.

Tiangong-1 was China’s first attempt at a space station. It was launched aboard a Long March 2F/G rocket from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center on September 30, 2011, so it is China’s responsibility.

In the unlikely event that a piece of the Tiangong-1 falls on an Australian, the Australian government would need to pursue a claim with respect to any injury the person suffered against the Chinese government. Such a claim could take many years through diplomatic channels.

Unfortunately, an individual cannot make a claim on his or her own behalf.

The ConversationI therefore suggest that before you get hit by a piece of space junk, you check your health insurance!

Melissa de Zwart, Professor, Adelaide Law School, University of Adelaide

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

China’s falling space station highlights the problem of space junk crashing to Earth



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China’s Tiangong-1 space station is due to hit Earth, and Australia is in the crash landing zone.
Cindy Zhi/The Conversation, CC BY-ND

Brad E Tucker, Australian National University

Any day now, the Chinese space station Tiangong-1 is expected to fall back to Earth – but it’s uncertain where it will crash land. We know that Australia is in the potential zone, and we have been hit before by a falling space station.

But Tiangong-1 is just one of many pieces of space junk left orbiting our Earth.

The United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) says more than 8,000 objects have been launched in to space, with 4,788 currently still in orbit around the Earth.




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With every launch, even more space junk is produced ranging from the rocket boosters, to flakes of paint and the satellites themselves. In 2009 an old communication satellite crashed into a new one, creating thousands of pieces of smaller debris.

By some estimates, the amount of space junk is in the hundreds-of-thousands to millions of pieces and this interactive illustration shows some of them.

An illustration of some of the space junk left orbiting Earth.
ESA/ID&Sense/ONiRiXEL, CC BY-SA

From a heavenly place

Tiangong-1, or “Heavenly Palace”, was China’s first space station – a small version of the International Space Station – and was launched in September 2011. Weighing a bit more than 8 tonnes, about 10 metres long and 3 metres in diameter, it was the first of three planned space stations.

An illustration comparing the Tiangong-1 with a US school bus.
Aerospace Corporation

After delays in Tiangong-2, the Tiangong-2 and Tiangong-3 were merged and Tiangong-3 was launched in 2016. Tiangong-1 has subsequently not been in use and was always designed to come down back to Earth.

But where will it crash land?

A drop in the ocean

Halfway between New Zealand and South America in the Pacific Ocean is one of the most un-inhabited places on the Earth. This is the ideal location to have large pieces come back down, as the risk to lifeforms is minimal.

While most of these objects will break up into smaller bits, choosing a remote location then further minimises the risk of these bits.

In this part of an ocean there are literally hundreds of parts of automated space vehicles, rocket boosters, and even the Russian Space Station Mir, which splashed down east of Fiji in March 2001.

When you look at maps of satellite and space junk re-entry, the majority go straight over Australia and New Zealand. That is because re-entry starts roughly between 80km and 100km above the ground, takes around 15 to 20 minutes, and creates debris footprints hundreds-to-thousands of kilometers wide.

Therefore in order to hit the target of the southern Pacific Ocean, it must start over Australia and New Zealand.

But there’s one important feature that makes Tiangong-1 different in all of this: it is out of control, according to China’s space agency.

Crashed in Australia

If you were around in 1979 and happened to be in Western Australia, you might have a unique souvenir – part of the NASA space station Skylab, which re-entered near the southern town of Esperance.

An overhead view of the Skylab space station.
NASA

While most missions now plan on re-entry, this was not always the case and Skylab did not have a good plan for coming back to the Earth. It was designed for a nine-year lifetime, but no clear manoeuvrability was built to re-enter at a specific point.

As news came out that it was going to re-enter, and it was not clear where, there was a varied response. Some people staged Skylab parties, others operated safety measures (such as air raid siren preparedness in Brussels).

After it hit WA, the local Shire of Esperance issued NASA with a cheeky A$400 littering fine for scattering debris across its region. It was eventually paid in 2003 – not by NASA, but by a US radio presenter and his listeners who raised the funds.

NASA fined for littering when Skylab fell near Esperance, WA.
Flickr/Amanda Slater, CC BY-SA

So in 2016 when China notified UNOOSA that Tiangong-1 was uncontrolled in its point of re-entry, this made scientists pay attention. Of course this made the public and media take notice, causing a bit of a panic in some coverage.

Don’t panic!

Every day, hundreds of tons of debris, both human and natural (i.e. meteors), hit the Earth. Even those that survive re-entry and land pose a minute risk. Keep in mind, most of the Earth is unpopulated – from the oceans to vast deserts and land, nearly all people are safe.

The total surface are of the Earth is over 500 million square-kilometres. Even if a piece of space junk leaves a 1,000 square-kilometre debris field, that is only 0.0002% of the Earth’s surface.

A graphic showing how Tiangong-1 could break up as it crashes back to Earth, but where will it crash?
Aerospace Corporation

In fact, the Aerospace Corporation has calculated the odds of getting hit by Tiangong-1 parts at 1 million times LESS than winning the lotto.

Map showing the area between 42.8 degrees North and 42.8 degrees South latitude (in green), over which Tiangong-1 could reenter. You are many more times likely to win the lotto then getting hit by a piece of space debris from it.
ESA, CC BY-SA

Now that you know you don’t have to worry, if you do end up being in a path that can see re-entry, you will see a show not unlike in the 2013 movie Gravity.

SPOILER ALERT: Don’t watch if you don’t know the ending of Gravity.

What are we doing about it

Of course the question has to be asked – what are we doing to both solve the junk already in space and prevent more? Well, lots actually.

A large source of space junk is all the rocket boosters and engines that are still up there and can be seen re-entering. If you remember the excitement in February around the Space X Falcon 9 Heavy launch, one of the huge reasons for excitement was that those rockets come back down safely, making them re-usable and not another piece of space junk.




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Making satellites smaller not only means they are cheaper and quicker to build, but at the end of their life they can break up even more in the atmosphere, eliminating the possibility of large pieces surviving and landing.

And for all those small bits out there, Electro-Optic Systems (EOS) and Mount Stromlo Observatory are part of the Space Environment Research Centre (SERC) which is planning to build a laser system capable of safely de-orbiting small bits of space junk

The ConversationSo don’t worry about Tiangong-1 or other space junk hitting you, we’re on it.

Brad E Tucker, Astrophysicist, Australian National University

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

60 years in orbit for ‘grapefruit satellite’ – the oldest human object in space



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One of the Vanguard satellites being checked out at Cape Canaveral, Florida in 1958.
NASA

Alice Gorman, Flinders University

Sixty years ago, a grapefruit-sized aluminium sphere with six antennas and some tiny solar cells was launched into Earth orbit. The Vanguard 1 satellite is still up there and is the oldest human-made object in space. It’s our first piece of space archaeology.

Other early satellites – such as Sputnik 1, the first satellite to leave Earth in 1957, and Explorer 1, the first US satellite – have long since re-entered the atmosphere and burnt up.

Vanguard 1’s legacy, as we enter the seventh decade of space travel, is a new generation of small satellites changing the way we interact with space.




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Making the first road map for space

By the early 1950s, the second world war’s rocket technology had developed to the point where the first satellite launch was imminent.

A commemorative poster of Vanguard 1 by artist Heidi Neilson, 2012.

The global scientific community had been working towards a massive cooperative effort to study the Earth, called the International Geophysical Year (IGY), to take place in 1957-58. What could be better than measuring the Earth from the outside?

Everything we knew about the space environment we had learned from inside the envelope of the atmosphere. The first satellite could change everything.

The IGY committee decided to add a satellite launch to the program, and the “space race” suddenly became real.

Six nations were predicted to have the capability to launch a satellite. They were the United States, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, France, Japan and Australia.

This was before NASA existed. The United Nations space treaties had not yet been written. The IGY was effectively building the first road map for using space.




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Waging peace in the Cold War

Vanguard 1 was intended to make the US the first nation in space – hence its name, meaning “leading the way”. The term also refers to the advance troops of a military attack.

Space exploration was not just about science. It was also about winning hearts and minds. These first satellites were ideological weapons to demonstrate the technological superiority of capitalism – or communism.

The problem was that the IGY was a civilian scientific program, but the rocket programs were military.

Project Vanguard was run by the US Naval Research Laboratory. Public perception was important, and they tried to give the satellite a civilian spin to present the US’s intentions in space as peaceful.

This meant the launch rocket should not be a missile, but a scientific rocket, made for research purposes. Such “sounding rockets” were, however, part of the military programs too – their purpose was to gather information about the little-known upper atmosphere for weapons development.




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Keep watching the skies!

The astronomer Fred Whipple, from the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, had an idea for the IGY satellite program that would help Project Vanguard present the right image and contribute to the scientific outcomes.

It was all well and good to launch a satellite, but you also had to know where it was in space so that you could collect its data. In the 1950s, the technology to do this was still in its infancy.

And in the words of science fiction author Douglas Adams, space is big. Really big. When something the size of a grapefruit is launched, you can predict where it should end up, but you don’t know if it’s there until you’ve seen it. Someone has to look for it.

This was the purpose of Whipple’s Project Moonwatch. Volunteers – nowadays we would call them citizen scientists – across the globe watched for the satellite using binoculars and telescopes supplied by the Smithsonian. But their first satellite sighting was not Vanguard 1. The Soviet satellite Sputnik 1 became the first human artefact in orbit on October 4, 1957.

1965: Project Moonwatch volunteers in Pretoria, South Africa, one of more than 100 teams worldwide. Each telescope covered a small, overlapping portion of the sky. Smithsonian Institution Archives.
Wikimedia

Vanguard 1’s descendants

Six months later, on March 17, 1958, the little polished sphere was lofted up to a minimum height of around 600km above the Earth, and there it has stayed, long after its batteries died. Technically, Vanguard 1 is space junk; but it doesn’t pose a great collision risk to other satellites. It has survived so long simply because its orbit is higher than the other early satellites.

The historians Constance Green and Milton Lomask say that Vangaurd 1 is the “the progenitor of all American space exploration today”. It wasn’t just the satellite, it was the support systems too, such as the tracking network hosted by multiple nations.

The Minitrack interferometer was one of the earliest antennas designed to track satellites. The Minitrack installed at Woomera in the 1950s was later moved to the Orroral Valley NASA Tracking Station near Canberra, where you can still see the antenna pylons. Author’s image.
Alice Gorman

It was Soviet leader Nikita Krushschev who called Vanguard 1 the “grapefruit satellite”, and he didn’t mean it as a compliment. But funnily enough, after satellites weighing thousands of kilograms and the size of double-decker buses, the current trend is back to small satellites.

Rather than fruit, these satellites are likened to loaves of bread or washing machines. They’re cheap to build, with off-the-shelf components, and cheap to launch. They’re not meant to stay in orbit for centuries. They’ll do their job for a few months or years, and then self-immolate in the atmosphere.




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There has been a long tradition of amateur satellites, but now space is more accessible than ever before. Students and space start-ups can get into orbit at a fraction of the cost it used to take. It’s revitalising the space economy and allowing a greater number of people to participate.

For example, QB50 is an international collaboration to launch 50 cubesats to explore the lower thermosphere. So far, 36 have been launched, including three from Australia last year.

Elon Musk’s SpaceX company is planning to launch a network of more than 7,500 small satellites over the next few years, to deliver broadband internet. (There are major concerns about how they will contribute to the space junk problem, however).

When Vanguard 1 was launched, its only companions were Explorer 1 and Sputnik 2. Soon it may have thousands of descendants swarming around it.

The little satellite meant to represent the peaceful uses of outer space is a physical reminder of the competition to imprint space with meaning in the early years of the Space Age. Now, 60 years on, it seems we are on the cusp of a new age in space.


The ConversationAlice Gorman is a panellist for two events at 2018 World Science Festival Brisbane – Space Junk: Cleaning Up After Ourselves (22 March) and Space Invaders: To Infinity and Beyond (24 March).

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

This article was originally published on The Conversation. 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.