Western Australia’s first locally designed and made satellite is setting the standard for the next generation of Australian space missions thanks to the efforts of a group of intrepid engineers.
Small in stature and quite unassuming, one could almost be forgiven for thinking Australia’s next satellite is little more than a paperweight.
But the team behind Curtin University’s Binar Space Program is confident the latest chapter in Australia’s space exploration story will pack quite a punch.
Later this month, the satellite Binar-1, measuring 1U — one unit, which is 100 mm x 100 mm x 100 mm — will dispatch from Florida’s Cape Canaveral launch site and take its place in the heavens.
To ensure Binar-1 safely makes its journey out of Earth’s atmosphere, engineers from Curtin’s Space Science and Technology Centre (SSTC) have partnered with Space BD, a service provider using the International Space Station that represents the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA).
Hitching a ride aboard one of Elon Musk’s SpaceX rockets during the next International Space Station re-supply mission, the CubeSat will be deployed by astronauts into low-Earth orbit to begin a planned 18-month mission.
The Binar Space Program, which is the brainchild of the SSTC engineering team, will begin with seven CubeSats launched into orbit across three different re-supply missions over the next couple of years.
Binar-1 is a single, solar-powered CubeSat, while the two subsequent launches will each have three 1U CubeSats aboard.
It primarily consists of a payload of two cameras (an 18 megapixel colour sensor for imagery and a 0.36 megapixel monochrome sensor for star tracking) and its bus, the satellite’s “brain”, which consists of all primary systems integrated on an 8-layer printed circuit board (PCB).
Binar Project Manager Ben Hartig, a mechatronics engineer, told create that Binar-1 will serve as the proof of concept for the next six satellites.
“Our primary goal is gaining data on how our systems are performing, so throughout the bus we included sensors on voltage levels and temperatures and tracking system performance. That information is the most valuable,” he said.
“On top of that, the two cameras on board will provide data both of the Earth and star-tracking data, which will be important.
“Lessons will be learnt as the mission progresses, but the bus data will help with the next launch and, at the same time, grow our expertise and knowledge base here in Western Australia.”
Binar-1 is the first satellite entirely designed in Western Australia, with Curtin’s students designing the sub-systems and building the CubeSat from scratch.
The team used CAD programs, including Autodesk Suite, for Binar-1’s mechanical design, and Altium for the electronic design. That meant it could essentially “draw out” where it wanted the copper to be, Hartig said.
“By putting everything together in the design files, it lowers the risk, as it eliminates human error,” he said.
“There are whole launches that have failed because someone plugged something in the wrong spot.”
From there, the team harnessed commodity electronics manufacturing to synthesise their designs to a high standard.
Talent in the west
The SSTC is using the Binar project to hone the skills of current and future generations of engineers and scientists.
Dr Robert Howie, another researcher and engineer instrumental in growing this program, told create that SSTC is harnessing people’s fascination with space exploration to get students excited about skills that can be applied to other fields later in their career.
Curtin has just started offering a unit teaching students the basics of building spacecraft and, in 2022, plans to give students hands-on experience building spacecraft systems in the lab.
“We are going to get students building payloads for CubeSats or other subsystems, such as developing circuit boards with an industry-standard PCB design software — doing 3D CAD of mechanical systems and working out how to assimilate and analyse that,” Howie said.
Curtin plans to build multidisciplinary teams across the fields of mechatronics, electronic and mechanical engineering, as well as working with physicists and data science and computing students.
Once the CubeSat subsystem designs are built, they will be tested in a simulated space environment in Curtin’s thermal vacuum chamber and on a vibration table to make sure they are rugged enough to work in space.
“There is a broad perception that to participate in the space exploration industry you must do so in Europe or the US, but we want to highlight that the skills and the capability to explore space exist in Western Australia and will only continue to advance,” Howie said.
The Binar project will offer additional engineering job opportunities in Western Australia, with the SSTC intending to double its team of full-time engineers.
The Western Australian Government invested $500,000 in the project earlier this year to facilitate the hiring of two senior engineers to support and de-risk the coming CubeSat launches.
Satellites from the south
Meanwhile, in South Australia, government and industry are galvanising to create their own locally manufactured satellite, which is slated for launch into low-Earth orbit in late 2022.
The SASAT1 Space Services Mission will see the deployment of a cereal box-sized satellite that will eventually assist in water quality monitoring and bushfire mitigation strategies.
The work is being spearheaded by the SmartSat Cooperative Research Centre (CRC), with Adelaide-based manufacturer Inovor Technologies designing and building the satellite, and tech company Myriota providing Internet of Things space services.
SmartSat CRC Chief Executive Professor Andy Koronios said the South Australian Government’s support will build the local small satellite manufacturing supply chain.
“This mission will provide opportunities for small startup companies to use the ongoing data captured by the satellite to develop analytics applications for government and commercial use,” Koronios said.
On a national level, the Australian Space Agency is supporting multiple initiatives across the country through the Space Infrastructure Fund, including partnering with global geo-data specialist Fugro.
The partnership will see Fugro build and run the Australian Space Automation, Artificial Intelligence and Robotics Control Complex (SpAARC) in Perth.
SpAARC is tipped to boost domestic space sector investment and support tech startups and researchers in controlling robotics activities in space such as servicing satellites in orbit.
SpAARC aerospace engineer Ben Kaebe told create there will be an increasing need to remotely manage machines in the harsh environment of space.
“For instance, through NASA’s Artemis program, it is likely that lunar rovers will be deployed for mission critical tasks,” he said.
“Those rovers would need to be controlled from somewhere and with this local capability we are building, Australia has a chance to control lunar rovers for Artemis missions right here in Perth.”
Kaebe is working with the Binar team at Curtin to leverage its experiences with CubeSats in order to better develop SpAARC.
“We included a virtual payload on Binar-1 in the form of a robotic emulator,” he said.
Kaebe holds up a prototype of the Binar CubeSat in the palm of his hand and gestures with it.
“Our robotic emulator will test scenarios such as unfolding a solar panel on the CubeSat, which has not deployed properly — which could mean the difference between mission success or failure.”
A team of engineers and astrophysicists in New South Wales has launched one of the Australian space sector’s newest startups, Quasar Satellite Technologies.
Earlier this year, the company spun out of a research project by the CSIRO with plans to use its proprietary phased array technology to provide unparalleled access to satellite data.
Traditionally, scientists have used parabolic dishes to communicate with a single satellite at one time and must slew the ground antenna to link to a different satellite while it remains in range, which may only be for as little as three minutes at a time.
Quasar’s cryogenically cooled, phased array technology supersedes parabolic dishes with a stationary ground array, and features dozens of individual antennas per array.
The antennas can be electronically combined to form beams that scan large sections of the sky at one time.
Quasar plans to deploy ground stations around the world, each with multiple simultaneous beams able to communicate with hundreds of satellites concurrently.
Quasar CEO Phil Ridley FIEAust explained that the company can combine the signals from each antenna and form a beam that can be easily steered in any direction and, importantly, directed away from noise sources.
“By 2030, more than 50,000 satellites will be orbiting Earth — and that is six times more than the amount of satellites ever launched by humans to date. It will get crowded and overwhelm the infrastructure on the ground, so we need a more efficient way to talk to them,” he said.
“A couple of years from now, we will start selling access to the technology as a service and our customers will include sovereign government and commercial clients for very diverse applications.”