Later this year, US company SpaceX will launch five Aussie satellites with a total mass of 300-kilograms, more than all the Australian-manufactured satellites launched in the history of space flight.
The five satellites made by Skykraft in Canberra will be the prototypes for a constellation of 210, designed to provide Air Traffic Management from space by monitoring aircraft ADS-B location signals.
Currently ADS-B (Automatic Dependent Surveillance – Broadcast) and VHF voice communications from aircraft are monitored by ground stations, which means much of the globe, especially oceans, isn’t well covered. Even coverage of the Australian mainland is not total.
Skykraft Chairman, Mark Skidmore, a retired RAAF Air Vice-Marshal, Air Commander Australia and Mirage and F-111 pilot, said air traffic management was critical to flight safety and needed assured 24/7 availability.
“The intent is that at any one time, an aircraft will be seen by five satellites,” he told ADM.
“There are no modifications required to the aircraft. That’s important. It is just the normal communications and surveillance signals being transmitted.
“Instead of picking it up on the ground we pick it up in space, transmit it through the network down to the ground station and from there to the air traffic controller.”
Skykraft satellites will be located in seven orbital planes around 600 kilometres, the middle of low earth orbit but higher up than many other satellites such as the International Space Station.
Launch will be aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral, with the launch window opening in early October. The satellites will communicate with ground stations and each other by radio frequency links.
ADS-B from space
Monitoring ADS-B from space would seem to be such a useful capability that it’s unsurprising that others are also offering the same service.
US company Aireon, based in Virginia and founded in 2011, is doing precisely that through payloads hosted on eight Iridium communications satellites.
The company has data services contracts with a number of Air Navigation Service Providers (ANSPs) including Singapore, Canada and PNG.
Spanish technology company Indra and Enaire, the air navigation manager in Spain, have formed a joint venture called Startical to also do space-based monitoring of ADS-B. Startical is initially planning to launch three satellites, the first later this year and the other two in 2023.
In this increasingly congested sector, Skykraft needs to offer something extra, which they do.
More than just monitoring ADS-B, Skykraft will provide additional and appealing capabilities – voice communications from the aircraft to ground controllers and data through ACARS from aircraft to airline ground managers.
Skidmore said to properly perform air traffic management you needed both ADS-B monitoring and voice communications with the aircraft.
Skykraft is a spinoff of University of NSW Space, one of Australia’s significant space capabilities incubators. The company started out in 2017 to develop the concept of space-based ADS-B monitoring. It now has 27 staff.
“Part of it was an Airservices Australia approach,” Skidmore said. “We took that and ran with it.”
Skidmore said there had been slow steady growth but that had really ramped up in the last six months.
Airservices Australia signed a collaboration agreement with Skykraft in January
“This is a great opportunity to support an Australian company to develop new sovereign capability that has the potential to provide near continuous surveillance reporting and higher fidelity communications that not only benefits Airservices and our customers, but the global aviation industry,” said Peter Curran, Airservices Chief Customer Experience and Strategy Officer.
Skidmore said the agreement with Airservices was to work on the proof of concept.
“This proof of concept allows us to work closely to define the requirements, for them to get knowledge and understanding of how a system like this would work and for us to get better knowledge and understanding of the air navigation service providers and what their requirements are,” he said.
“They are a tier one ANSP, the equivalent of any of the large air navigation service providers.”
For ANSPs the big benefit is that they will no longer need substantial ground-based infrastructure, though they would likely retain it around major airports.
Skykraft sees this in use far beyond Australia.
“We will be exporting to the world. We are not just focusing on Australia. This is a capability that the FAA could pick up, that Europe could pick up, Africa could pick up without having to put the ground infrastructure in place,” Skidmore said.
“Africa is a classic example of where they jump from old landline telephones to mobile phones because they didn’t need to go that way. They could leapfrog that technology.”
Skykraft sees their manufacturing model as very much in line with SpaceX, which has done more to revolutionise access to space than any other company, reducing launch cost and producing lower cost satellites which can be readily replaced with more advanced models.
Skidmore says they are planning a five-year satellite life.
“We will have continuous build cycle going that allows us to do a tech refresh at the same time,” he said.
“Our satellites will boost into orbit and we will de-orbit as well. We will burn them up. We are not going to leave them up there as space junk.”
Joe Andrews, Skykraft senior engagement and outreach lead, said Skykraft had adopted the SpaceX satellite model.
“Previously you would build one $2 billion satellite and do nothing for the next 15 years,” he said.
“By constantly manufacturing more and more satellites we create a sustainable production process where we actually can employ a lot of engineers to add the capabilities.”
Skidmore said Skykraft was very well aligned with the SpaceX engineering concepts and culture.
For example, the SkykKraft clean room in their facility on the former Canberra Institute of Technology campus in the middle of Canberra, meets SpaceX requirements for dust-free satellite assembly. That avoided costly over-engineering to meet unnecessary biological requirements.
That made SpaceX the first choice for launch.
“At the moment SpaceX is still our best option,” Skidmore said.
“Gilmour (Space Technologies) will get there but they (SpaceX) are reliable, we know the launch cadence, we know the cost, we know everything associated with it. SpaceX is great to work with.”
With a 300-kilogram satellite payload, there’s actually room left over for paying passengers, in the form of other people’s experimental circuit boards or 1U or 3U format modules.
That allows other organisations to space-prove their technology at relatively modest cost, starting just under $4000 for a 100 x 100 mm circuit board. Payloads will of course need to meet Skykraft requirements for interfacing and manufacture.