Australia is kick-starting a space industry and this is what we can expect
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Australia is kick-starting a space industry which could see more space stocks joining ASX-listed Sky and Space Global and soon-to-be-listed Kleos Space.
We spoke to Silicon Quantum Computing director and former Telstra innovation chief Hugh Bradlow about what’s ahead.
What is prompting Australia’s sudden interest in building a space industry?
Instead of global powers in the space race, now private companies are being pitted against each other and the possibilities are expanding at a rapid rate. It’s the Space Race 2.0.
Technology change has enabled a new generation of small, lightweight satellites to be built at much lower cost than the large communication satellites we currently have in space.
So-called ‘cubesats’ are about 1 litre in volume (10x10x10cm) and can largely be built out of commercial components — sizes that keep getting smaller and smaller.
With that comes an important consequence: they dramatically reduce the cost of launching satellites because you send multiple satellites up in one rocket.
On top of that, the cost of rocket launches can be expected to come down significantly due to new technology like that from New Zealand-based Rocket Lab who expects to bring the cost of a launch down to $5 million.
How will this new generation of satellites affect life on earth?
Recalling your basic school physics you will no doubt remember that to get a satellite into a geostationary orbit (where it stays in the same spot above earth), it needs to be above the equator at an altitude of approximately 42,000 km.
Geostationary orbits are the traditional way of creating telecommunications out of satellites because you have an earth antenna pointed in a fixed direction which beams the signal up to the satellite which in turn relays it to another such antenna at a distant location.
If you drop the altitude of the orbit, the satellites, from the point of view of an earth observer, start moving across the sky so to communicate with them you need a ‘tracking antenna’ on earth which must move with the satellite.
Furthermore, the satellites only remain in the sky above you for a short time because by the time you get down to 2000 km they are moving at a fair lick (the total orbital time is of the order of 2 hours), which of course means that if you want continuous communications you need a whole constellation of satellites buzzing across the sky.
Surprisingly, creating such “LEO” (Low Earth Orbit) constellations for broadband communications has become a very big business.
A number of consortia including the likes of Richard Branson and the omnipresent Elon Musk are busily building LEO constellations and we can expect to see them arrive in our skies over the next 2 years.
However, it is not just the satellites that make this broadband system possible, it is also new electronics on the ground.
New broadband connections using constellations could will blow NBN satellite services out of the sky (figuratively, of course). The service will cover 100% of the earth’s surface pole-to-pole, will offer speeds comparable to today’s cable networks and will not suffer the really annoying roughly ½ second delay required to send a signal 42,000 kms into space and back again.
Which sectors are likely to get the biggest benefits from an Australian space industry?
For all those regional customers who have been deprived of high speed broadband communications, life will never be the same again, to say nothing of the opportunities offered by the Internet of Things in agricultural technology (agtech).
Talking of agtech, another application of LEO satellites is enabling hyperspectral analysis of pastures below them.
This analysis allows farmers to determine where they should water, how much fertiliser is required, when they should plant and sow and other key parameters to improve crop efficiency. These analytical satellites have become big business and hopefully will result in a significant increase in global food production.
Another application of satellites we are all familiar with is GPS.
We use it every day in our smartphones to help us navigate. GPS satellites are in an orbit of about 26,000km so are not exactly LEO’s, but more like MEO’s (Medium Earth Orbit).
The triangulation of the signals they send allows us to locate ourselves on the earth’s surface within about 10 metre accuracy.
The exciting news on this front is that a new generation of GPS satellites is broadcasting at a more advanced signal that will enable phones to locate themselves within 30cm accuracy. Of course the phones will need new GPS chips in them but this will potentially open a range of new applications.
One of the more exotic proposals for Space 2.0 is asteroid mining.
The asteroid belt beyond Mars has a mass of valuable minerals and mining it could yield vast profit.
While there is some way to go before we can manufacture equipment for asteroid mining in space, a company called Magna Parva has a technology to build smaller, lighter structures that are awkward to launch in their assembled form, such as the large antennas required on satellites to receive weak signals from earth.
Magna Parva are able to produce lightweight carbon composite antennas in orbit using a process called ‘pultrusion’ and intend to use these capabilities in a LEO constellation called Kleos to track radio signals on earth.
Kleos — which is planning to list on the ASX — is aimed at finding the source of illicit communications of one form or another (e. an unregistered ocean vessel being used by people smugglers who are using a satellite phone).
By using a constellation, not only can they detect the signal but also, through triangulation, determine its location on earth. You can almost think of it as an upside down GPS.
Who will regulate the space in… space?
Companies such as Swarm Technologies have shown that they can build satellites that are about a quarter of the size of a cubesat and use them to create a communications network for the Internet of Things.
Because they are a US-based company, they applied to the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) for a licence to launch their trial satellites.
The FCC refused on the grounds that the satellites were too small for the radar system that monitors space junk (the Space Surveillance Network or SSN) to locate and would therefore pose a hazard.
The validity of the FCC’s claim is disputed but in any event, Swarm went ahead and launched without authorisation using an Indian rocket. Whether India or a third country gave permission is not clear but it opens up a vista of a new Wild West in the skies.
How this will be sorted out is open to speculation, but you would want to think twice before launching without regulatory permission.
Hugh S. Bradlow (@hughbradlow) is President of the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering. He is also a independent Non-Executive Director of Silicon Quantum Computing.
He was previously Chief Technology Officer and Head of Innovation at Telstra, responsible for the R&D of new technologies and their introduction into Telstra’s business.