ITâs small. But itâs significant. It took the reconstruction of an entire network of engineering, planning, co-ordination and control systems to get it into orbit.
Boldly called Buccaneer, the Defence Science and Technology Group along with the University of New South Wales have breathed a collective sigh of relief — with confirmation it is “in good health” and “on orbit” following its successful launch last weekend.
It was carried aloft by a NASA Delta 2 rocket from the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
It represents proof Australia can rejoin the space race.
But it’s also got a few jobs to do while it’s up there.
SAILING THE SEVEN SKIES
Cubesats have changed the space game.
The pace of electronics miniaturisation now means your phone packs a camera far more powerful than that carried by the recent Cassini probe to Saturn.
Because of this, these little standardised boxes — which ‘piggyback’ the launch of much bigger commercial and research satellites — can be packed with payloads capable of achieving meaningful goals.
Buccaneer is no different. Both the DST and UNSW will be watching its telemetry closely, and putting that data to practical effect.
“It’s a great way for the DST Group to start to get more into the game of space engineering, in line with government policy outlined in to 2016 Defence White Paper,” says DST Group Leader Surveillance Systems Analysis, Dr Coen Van Antwerpen. “DST wants to position itself to have the expertise to provide unbiased space advice to government in the future.”
And what they learn from Buccaneer will lead to new generations of satellites, gradually evolving to add more and more to tasks such as environmental monitoring, communications, calibration — and national security.
There’s a few nailbiting moments yet to come, says DST Group Lead Small Satellite Ground Segment, Ms Natalie Stevens.
“Various antennae must successfully fold out at the appropriate time. Solar panels must deploy when commanded to do so. These are all critical points — and will give us a good expectation of what will happen, and when, for the future.”
Buccaneer’s a timely mission.
The Defence White Paper called for an expansion of Australia’s space-based military capabilities. It highlights how reliant Australia is on satellites for its communications networks. The ADF also needs them for vital surveillance and reconnaissance.
Now it wants greater assured access. It wants an autonomous ability to guarantee these now critical services remain available.
“One of the really cool things we’re trying to understand with these small satellites is what utility they may have for the ADF in terms of niche missions, niche objectives,” Dr Van Antwerpen says “We want to work out what they can do effectively.”
The Buccaneer program is the first step towards that goal.
“This first mission is just to prove we can do this, and learn valuable lessons” says DSTG Team Leader Small Satellite Experimentation, Dr David Lingard.
It was 50 years ago — November 29, 1967 — that Australia first took a step into space.
In fact, we were only the fourth nation to build and launch our own satellite from our own territory.
We were edged out by only Russia and the United States.
The Weapons Research Establishment Satellite (WRESAT) blasted through the skies above the South Australian Outback town of Woomera.
The Weapons Research Establishment was a precursor to the DST Group. The satellite was a joint project with the University of Adelaide.
Together, they took just 11 months to build and launch this pathfinding project. It then circled the Earth 642 times before burning up in the atmosphere above the Atlantic Ocean.
Its purpose then was very similar to now.
WRESAT was intended to reveal the workings of the Earth’s upper atmosphere, as well as acting as a demonstrator of Australian technical and engineering capabilities.
In many ways, Buccaneer picks up where WRESAT left off.
It’s been a long path.
The Buccaneer components were built at the DST facility near RAAF Edinburgh. These were then assembled within a cubesat chassis at UNSW Canberra before undergoing stress tests.
It’s not just a matter of slapping a few components together and plugging them in. The little box must meet international standards intended to ensure it can cope with the acceleration of a rocket launch, being ejected into an orbit while moving at 7.8 kilometres a second, and remain operational despite shifts in temperature of up to 200C.
Then it must deploy a bow-tie shaped antenna some 3.2m from end to end.
But mostly Buccaneer has been a strategic exercise.
“Australia is building and has facilities now to test a spacecraft in preparation for launch,” says Dr Coen van Antwerpen. “We don’t have to send it overseas to get certification any more. We can do this in our own country. In context of defence we’re very keen to see facilities such as these grow and flourish. It builds a national capability.”
Over the past three years, teams of space engineers and scientists have had to be assembled from scratch.
Contacts have been made and networks established with international space agencies and businesses to ensure more Australian cubesats can hitch a ride when the spare launch capacity comes available.
And then there’s the mission control centres for Defence — facilities ‘plugged in’ to the national and international space communication networks and monitoring facilities necessary to make it all worthwhile.
We’ve now got one such set up at the UNSW campus at the ADF Academy, and another at DST Edinburgh in Adelaide.
But the DST wants more. It’s managing the federal government’s Next Generation Technologies Fund to help get fresh Australian space research projects and space-based businesses off the ground.
“It’s about bright ideas, new ideas — and developing those to a level of maturity,” Dr van Antwerpen says. “Those at a more mature state can then be assisted by the Defence Innovation Hub to be turned into a marketable industry project.”
Buccaneer 1 is hoped to remain in orbit for at least two years before the gentle braking effect of the upper atmosphere slows it enough to tumble down. But it could stay up there for up to five years.
Buccaneer 2 is waiting in the wings. Lessons will be learnt and applied from Buccaneer 1. Then, hopefully in a few years, Bucaneer 2 will be sent into space.
NAVIGATION &. CALIBRATION
These Buccaneers don’t have an eye-patch. In fact, one of their key roles is to help improve the foresight with which satellites are put into orbit.
It’s getting messy up there.
There are clouds of debris. Dead satellites. Wayward launch leftovers.
Collisions are becoming a real and present danger. And each new collision serves to dramatically compound the problem.
“It’s very important to understand what’s going on above our heads,” says DSTG Lead Small Satellite Future Missions, Mr Iain Cartwright.
The UNSW Canberra space research program seeks to more accurately predict orbits. This will enable future collisions to be predicted — and hopefully avoided.
What they’re looking at is the weather, on the Earth and the Sun. Objects in low-Earth orbit — such as cubesats like Buccaneer — are gently but constantly buffeted by atmospheric drag. The air is incredibly thin. But it’s there.
Then there’s the impact of solar winds, and the ebb-and-flow of the Earth’s magnetic field..
How these elements buffet satellites is not entirely understood. The resulting small erratic movements are therefore difficult to accurately predict for collision avoidance in an increasingly crowded environment.
Improved situational awareness through accurate modelling of satellite orbits is therefore increasingly important.
Buccaneer is a defence project. So it also has a defence role to perform.
It will be used to research calibration techniques for Australia’s unique over-the-horizon radar system, the Jindalee Operational Radar Network (or JORN).
Controlled from the RAAF Edinburgh base in South Australia, this system has been built to track activity in the air and on the sea over an area of some 37,000 square kilometres to Australia’s north and west since the early 1980s.
JORN works by bouncing radar waves off the Earth’s ionosphere.
But that ionosphere is constantly moving. Rippling. It’s buffeted by the position — and weather — of the Sun. This needs to be better understood and tracked in order to refine the radar signals bouncing back from the surface.
Buccaneer crosses the skies several hundred kilometres above the Earth, and above the ionosphere itself. It will examine this phenomenon from a different perspective — the other side.
This data will be compared and contrasted with signals returned by the JORN radars. It’s hoped the end result will be a more accurate — and possibly longer ranged — radar system.
But the overarching objective is much more lofty: leading the way back into the space race.
“DST is keen to partner and grow, and look at ways of growing a space industry in Australia,” says Dr van Antwerpen.