Attend any space-related conference in Australia, and you’ll find one acronym crops up time and again – UNSW. The university has a significant presence in the space game, so ADM caught up with Prof Andrew Dempster, Dr Joon Wayn Cheong, Dr William Crowe, Dr Eamonn Glennon, and Benjamin Southwell at their lab, the Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research (ACSER), at UNSW’s Sydney campus to find out more.
ACSER has pioneered the development of cubesats through the UNSW-EC0 and INSPIRE-2 projects, which pack a range of capabilities into satellites roughly the size of a shoebox. The Centre is the first Australian entity to build and operate a cubesat in space.
“We were funded from small pockets of leftover research funds cobbled together from within UNSW,” Dr Cheong said. “Despite this significant lack of resources, our cubesats’ success is a testament to Australia’s determination to enter the space sector by hook or by crook.”
This determination to get to space by any means necessary is evident even from launch. The team’s satellites hitched a lift to the International Space Station, where they were quite literally thrown out the back door by a remotely-operated robotic chute.
The team is particularly proud of the GPS receiver embedded in the satellites. Commercially-available receivers are designed to shut down when used above certain speeds, primarily to prevent the tech from being used in cruise missiles. To get around this, the team harnessed their 20 years of GNSS experience and built their own receiver from the ground up.
“The credit-card sized GPS receiver was wholly developed by members of ACSER UNSW, including the software, firmware and hardware. It has been proven to operate nominally in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) which, travelling at 28,000 kilometres per hour, is highly challenging.”
The team has also taken advantage of rapid prototyping to keep their project agile.
“Rapid prototyping and putting relatively untested modules in space is the mantra of the Cubesat philosophy, which is to fail fast and fail cheaply,” Dr Cheong said.
“ACSER embraced this and has allowed the 3D printed structure, GPS receiver and many previously untested software to be all validated in space via only a handful of cubesat missions.”
“In UNSW-EC0, we embraced 3D printing and electroplating technology to iteratively produce our structure, which mechanically holds the cubesat together. This is the first time such a structure has been flown in space.”
The team has developed three capabilities of interest to Defence: GNSS reflectometry, or observing signals reflected off the ocean surface from space to track global sea states (developed with SEASKIP, a start-up that emerged from ACSER); space situational awareness of objects that can’t be tracked from the ground (developed with HEO Robotics, which also spun off from ACSER); and GNSS interference geo-localisation, which uses phased array technology to identify, characterise and geo-locate GPS jammers (developed with GPSat Systems Australia).
These capabilities also have commercial applications: sea state estimation assists in ship route planning, and situational awareness helps in fault diagnosis for telecommunications and other large, expensive satellites in geosynchronous orbit.
ACSER is now partnered with Gilmour Space to enable sophisticated GPS signal tracking systems to be integrated with their rocket avionics.
Currently, funding remains the biggest challenge facing ACSER’s efforts to advance Australia’s presence in low earth orbit and beyond.
“Ideally, we’d have a road map of satellite developments,” Prof Dempster said. “The funding model to make that happen is still not clear, due to many uncertainties associated with the Australian Space Agency.”
“However, there is increasing interest from the military to employ some of our cross-pollinated technologies, such as GNSS Reflectometry and GNSS Interference Geolocalisation.”
The team still hopes to get another cubesat into space in the next few years, and also aims to inspire the next generation of the technology.
“We hope the successes from UNSW-EC0 and INSPIRE-2 missions, despite the issues we faced, will help future cubesat missions benefit from our experience – especially Australian ones.”