CM – We’re launching Australia’s first self-made satellite, and it’s a giant leap towards the moon


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23 August 2021

by Ben Hartig, The Conversation

On August 28, a SpaceX rocket will take off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, transporting supplies for the International Space Station. A small satellite is also on board, which means a giant leap into space for our research program here in Western Australia.

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Our satellite, named Binar-1 after the Noongar word for « fireball », was designed and built from scratch by our team at the Space Science and Technology Center at Curtin University.

We chose this name for two reasons: to recognize the Wadjuk people of the Noongar Nation and to understand the relationship between our satellite program and Curtins Desert Fireball Network, which has successfully searched for meteorites in the Australian desert.

Binar-1 is a CubeSat – a kind of small satellite that consists of 10-centimeter-cube-shaped modules. Binar-1 consists of only one such module, so technically it is a 1U CubeSat.

Their main goal is to prove the functionality of the technology in space and thus to take a first step towards future missions in which we hope to ultimately send CubeSats to the moon.

Binar-1 is equipped with two cameras with two goals: firstly, to photograph Western Australia from space to test the performance of our instruments and hopefully also to arouse the imagination of young WA students; and second, to depict stars. The star camera will determine exactly which direction the satellite is facing – a crucial skill for any future lunar mission.

Our center is the largest planetary research group in the southern hemisphere and we participate in space missions with agencies such as NASA and the European and Japanese space agencies. In order to understand the different planets and other bodies in the solar system, we need to build spaceships to visit them. But for most of the space age, the cost of building and launching this technology has been a major barrier to participation for most nations.

Meanwhile, the rise of consumer electronics has produced smartphones that are significantly more powerful than computers from the Apollo era. Combined with new launch options, the costs of launching a small satellite are now within reach for research groups and start-ups. As a result, the market for « COTS » (Consumer Off-the-Shelf) satellite components has boomed over the past decade.

Like other Australian research groups, we began our journey into space with a specific mission in mind: to build instruments that can observe flaming meteors from orbit. But we quickly found that the cost of repeatedly purchasing the satellite hardware for multiple missions would be enormous.

But then we realized that our research group had an advantage: We already had experience building space observatories for the remote outback, such as the Desert Fireball Network. This know-how gave us a head start in developing our own satellites from the ground up.

Outback observatories and orbital satellites have surprisingly much in common. Both have to monitor the sky and work in harsh conditions. Both are dependent on solar energy and have to function autonomously – in space, as in the desert, nobody is there to repair things in the blink of an eye. Both also experience intense vibrations on the journey to their destination. The debate is whether rocket launches or undulating outback roads make for a bumpier ride.

So in 2018 we set out to build a bespoke satellite. For the first two and a half years we prototyped circuit boards and tested them to their limits, refining our design with each version. The tests took place in our space environment laboratory, where we have vacuum chambers, liquid nitrogen and shaking tables to simulate the different space environments the satellite will experience.

On board the International Space Station, astronauts Binar-1 are discharged and from an air lock in the Japanese Kibo module. The satellite will initially maintain an orbit similar to the station, about 400 kilometers above the earth. At this altitude there is enough atmosphere to create a tiny drag that will eventually cause the satellite to fall into the thicker part of the atmosphere.

In the end, it will be a fireball, like its namesake, and if we are extremely lucky we will catch pictures of it on one of our ground-based observatories. We assume this will be the case after about 18 months, but this time frame can vary due to many factors, such as: B. the solar weather, vary. As long as we can, we’ll be collecting data to refine future missions, and we’ve already started looking for ways to collect data when the next satellites drop into the atmosphere.

On the same rocket as Binar -1 will launch CUAVA-1, the first satellite built by the Australian Research Council’s CubeSat development program. But although the two satellites will share the same voyage into space, their evolutionary paths have been completely different.

As originally planned, the CUAVA team focused on developing instrument payloads while purchasing navigation systems and other components from Dutch and Danish suppliers.

Our satellite was designed and built entirely in-house, which means that we can reduce costs by creating multiple versions and at the same time constantly testing and refining our hardware for future missions.

Six more 1U satellites are already planned in the Binar program, each of which is a step towards ours ultimate goal of a lunar mission.

As part of the Australian Government’s Moon-to-Mars Initiative, we are conducting a feasibility study for our Binar Prospector mission where we hope that two six-part CubeSats will orbit the moon in be observed at close range.

The earliest start of this mission is 2025 when NASA begins its commercial lunar payload service. There are several ways to get CubeSats to the moon by the end of this decade, so there will be plenty of options. Most of these questions are the subject of the feasibility study and are currently confidential.

Shooting the moon is not only scientifically fascinating – it will also benefit Australia. By developing entirely domestic technology, we cannot rely on expensive imported components, which means the Australian space industry can stand on its own two feet while reaching for the sky.

This article was republished by The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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