By Squadron Leader Michael Spencer

These spacecraft are able to gather remote sensing information with radios and cameras, and are the sort of innovative space capability that can help meet many ground-based needs in ways that make sense for Australia. Because they have re-programmable software defined radios on board, we can change their purpose on the fly during the mission, which greatly improves the spacecraft’s functional capabilities for multiple use by Defence.[1]

Professor R Boyce, Chair for Space Engineering, UNSW Canberra (2017)

The Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) and Defence Science Technology Group (DST) of the Australian Department of Defence have separately established partnerships with University of New South Wales (UNSW) Canberra which has resulted in a space program with one DST space mission already in orbit, one RAAF mission about to be launched. Additional follow-on missions are planned for each of RAAF and DST for launch in the near future. A combination of disruption in space technology, associated with ‘Space 2.0’ that makes space more accessible, and a commitment by UNSW Canberra to develop a space program, has delivered M1 as the first Australian space mission for the RAAF. These small satellite missions will provide research that will give a better understanding, for the current and future Defence workforce, of the potential opportunities for exploiting the space domain using Space 2.0 technology. As such, this article explores the move away from Space 1.0 to Space 2.0. While discussed in more detail below, broadly speaking, Space 2.0 relates to the reduced costs of accessing space and conducting space missions with commercial-off-the-shelf satellite components for lower-cost small satellites and mission payloads.

A lunch-box sized satellites (CubeSats) for the Buccaneer and Biarri space missions. (Source: Australian Department of Defence)

The objective of the ADF’s employment of the space domain is to support a better military situation for the joint force in operations planned and conducted in the air, sea, ground, and information domains. Currently, ADF joint warfighting operations are critically dependent on large and expensive satellites that are owned and operated by commercial and allied service providers. As such, a Defence-sponsored university program is currently underway to explore the potential benefits of employing microsatellites as a lower-costing option to augment the capabilities traditionally fulfilled by the large-sized satellites. Furthermore, orbiting space-based sensors can view much larger areas of the Earth in a single scan than are possible with airborne sensors. Thus, a space-supported force element can observe, communicate, and coordinate multiple force elements dispersed over large areas in multiple theatres of operations. Finally, the transmission of signals above the atmosphere enables better communications between satellites, performed over long distances over the horizon without atmospheric attenuation effects, to enable better inter-theatre and global communications.

In the twentieth century, space missions were only affordable through government-funded projects. Government sponsored organisations and missions continued to grow in size and their capabilities. In retrospect, government agencies and space industry now refer to these large-sized, expensive, and complex mission systems as ‘Space 1.0’ technology.[2] As national space agendas drove the development of bigger space launch vehicles able to carry and launch larger payloads with one or more large satellites, changes in government funding priorities away from space lift services began to stifle innovation in space technology which remained as high-end and expensive technology. Recently, in the twenty-first century, the large government agencies looked to commercial industries to find ways to innovate and develop cheaper alternatives for launching and operating space missions. This resulted in the commercialisation of affordable access to space, now commonly referred to as Space 2.0; an industry-led evolution that is generating more affordable commercial alternatives for space launch services and operations management, reusable space launch vehicles and, significantly, miniaturised satellite technology.[3] For example, in 1999, California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, and Stanford University’s Space Systems Development Lab developed the CubeSat standard, prescribed for the pico- and nanosatellite classes of microsatellites.[4] The CubeSat initiative was initially pursued to enable affordable access to reduce the barriers for university students to access space. CubeSat was initially designed to offer a small, inexpensive, and standardised satellite system to support university student experiments.

CubeSat modules are based on building up a satellite with a single or a multiple number of the smallest unitary 10cm cube module, referred to as a ‘1U’ CubeSat, i.e. a picosatellite.[5] This basic building block approach has enabled a standardisation in satellite designs and launchers. Each 1U can weigh up to 1.5 kg[6]; a ‘6U’ CubeSat, i.e. a nanosatellite, measures 30cm x 20cm x 10cm, six times a 1U and weighs up to twelve kilograms[7]. Microsatellites are typically comprised of a standardised satellite chassis and bus loaded with an onboard computer, ‘star tracker’ subsystem to measure satellite orientation, hardware to control satellite attitude and antenna pointing in orbit, solar power subsystem, communications subsystem, a deployable mechanism actuator for unfolding the solar panels and antennas, and the mission payload, i.e. mission-related sensors, cameras, radio transmitter/receiver and the suchlike.

Microsatellite projects exploit commonly available Commercial-Off-The-Shelf (COTS) technology to reduce costs and development schedules, even in military mission systems. The use of COTS technology enables a simplified plug-and-play approach to microsatellite engineering and design. By having pre-made, interchangeable and standardised components, microsatellite designs can be rapidly assembled, tested, evaluated, and modified until an acceptable solution is realised. Agile manufacturing methods such as 3D printing can further reduce the time taken to engineer and manufacture a viable operational microsatellite design.[8]

The Buccaneer miniature satellite CubeSat at the UNSW Canberra satellite research laboratory at the Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra on 17 October, 2016.(Source: Australian Department of Defence)

The CubeSat model has become a commonly accepted standard for low-cost, low-altitude orbit, and short duration space missions. Microsatellites are relatively cheaper, more flexible in mission designs, and can be built more rapidly when compared to larger satellites, and can be replaced on-orbit more frequently, thereby taking advantage of recent technological innovation. Their small size can also exploit spare spaces in the payload section of the launch vehicles that are scheduled and funded mainly for larger satellites. This is commonly referred to as a ‘rideshare’ or ‘piggyback.’ The challenge for the designers of such ‘piggyback’ missions is to find a suitable launch event with a date and planned orbit that matches the readiness and mission of the microsatellite.

Space 2.0 evolution has realised commercial alternatives to the traditional space mission designs that used heavy satellites launched from heavy rockets. These smaller and cheaper rockets have been specifically designed to launch lighter payloads of microsatellites. In 2017, an Indian Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle using a PSLV-C37 heavy-lift rocket set a world record in lifting 104 small satellites into orbit in a single space launch event. As the Times of India reported:

India scripted a new chapter in the history of space exploration with the successful launch of a record 104 satellites by ISRO’s [Indian Space Research Organisation] Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle in a single mission. Out of the total 104 satellites placed in orbit, 101 satellites belonged to six foreign countries. They included 96 from the US and one each from Israel, the UAE, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Kazakhstan.[9]

The growing maturity and expanding capabilities of CubeSat systems have seen a growing acceptance beyond university users. For example, DST and UNSW Canberra are designing, building, and testing microsatellite designs for space missions to meet Defence needs in Australia.

Space 2.0 standards and microsatellites are not intended to replace the traditional large satellites deployed into higher altitude orbit missions. Large and small-sized satellites each offer different benefits and limitations. Large satellites can collect information with higher fidelity when configured with bigger optical and radiofrequency apertures, with room available for better pointing control subsystem, larger and more powerful on-board computing systems, and multiple mission, all needing a larger power subsystem. Alternatively, disaggregating space missions across different small satellites, deployed into a large constellation, may be more survivable to environmental hazards and resilient to interference in a contested environment.

Small satellite missions can now fulfil the potential mission needs of military, commercial operators, scientists and university students. Microsatellites have already been employed for communications, signals intelligence, environmental monitoring, geo-positioning, observation and targeting. They can perform similar functions as larger satellites, albeit with a much smaller power source and reduced effective ranges for transmitters and electro-optical devices. They are easier and cheaper to make and launch for a short-term, low-Earth orbit mission. This is ideal for employing space missions to improve ADF capabilities on the ground.

Defence has partnered with UNSW Canberra, including ‘UNSW Canberra Space’ – a team of space academics and professionals – to collaborate in space research, engineering, and mission support services with Space 2.0 satellite technology in space missions for DST and RAAF. When combined with new and agile manufacturing techniques, these microsatellite missions provide the ADF with opportunities to test and evaluate potential options for operationally responsive space capabilities.

UNSW Canberra has already built the ‘Buccaneer Risk Mitigation Mission’ (BRMM) as its inaugural microsatellite space mission, in partnership with DST.[10] In November 2017, NASA successfully launched BRMM from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. BRMM is a collaboration, in both the project engineering project and space mission management, between DST and UNSW Canberra to jointly fly and operate the first Australian developed and operated defence-science mission. BRMM is currently operational in low-Earth orbit, at a height above the ionosphere which is a dynamic phenomenon that changes with space weather effects and the Sun’s position.

The importance of this orbit is that the RAAF is dependent on the ionosphere to enable functioning of its Jindalee Operational Radar Network (JORN) systems, which is a crucial component of a national layered surveillance network that provides coverage of Australia’s northern approaches.[11] The JORN coverage and system performance are critically dependent on the ionosphere. The BRMM satellite is configured with a high-frequency receiver to measure the JORN signal that passes through the ionosphere. These signal measurements allow DST scientists and engineers to study the quality of JORN’s transmitted beam and signal, and the propagation of High Frequency (HF) radio waves that pass skywards through the ionosphere. BRMM was planned with a one-year mission-life but could stay in orbit for up to five years, depending on space weather effects and atmospheric drag.[12] BRMM is also a risk reduction activity for the ‘Buccaneer Main Mission’ (BMM) as a follow-on space mission.[13] BRMM will provide space data on how spacecraft interact with the orbital environment, to improve the satellite design for BMM, and also provide mission experience that can be used to improve the operation of the BMM. The BMM will also be used to calibrate the JORN high-frequency signals but will use an improved payload design, based on a heritage of BRMM. BMM is planned for a launch event in 2020.

This space odyssey pursued by UNSW Canberra is also bringing direct benefits to RAAF. The UNSW Canberra space program includes parallel efforts to develop three CubeSats, funded by RAAF, for two separate missions in separate events. These space missions will support academic research into the utility of microsatellites, configured with a small-sized sensor payload, for a maritime surveillance role. The first mission, ‘M1,’ will deploy a single CubeSat, currently scheduled to share a ride with a US launch services provider in mid-November 2018.[14] UNSW Canberra will continue the program and develop a second mission, ‘M2,’ which is planned to deploy two formation-flying, with inter-satellite communications, in a single space mission in 2019. The M1 and M2 missions will support research and education for space experts in Defence, and UNSW Canberra, to further explore and realise new possibilities with Space 2.0 technologies.

To conclude, the advent of Space 2.0 has reduced cost barriers and complexity to make access to space missions and space lift more affordable for more widespread uses. The increased affordability of space technology has helped to demystify mission systems and increase the interests and understanding of the potential opportunities for Space 2.0 missions as alternatives to more expensive and more complex space missions. Additionally, Space 2.0 enables agility in the design phase for the rapid development of new and viable concepts for space missions hitherto not possible with Space 1.0 technology. Space 2.0 evolution makes it possible for ADF to consider affordable space options; UNSW Canberra’s knowledge and technical achievements in space engineering and operations, with DST for Buccaneer and RAAF for M1 and M2, will provide critical research for considering the potential for new space missions for Australia.

Squadron Leader Michael Spencer is an Officer Aviation (Maritime Patrol & Response), currently serving in the RAAF Air Power Development Centre, analysing potential risks and opportunities posed by technology change drivers and disruptions to the future employment of air and space power. His Air Force career has provided operational experiences in long-range maritime patrol, aircrew training, and weaponeering, and management experiences in international relations, project management in air and space systems acquisitions, space concepts development, and joint force capability integration. He is an Australian Institute of Project Management certified project manager and also an Associate Fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics & Astronautics.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this document are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defence, Royal Australian Air Force, or the Government of Australia. The Commonwealth of Australia will not be legally responsible in contract, tort or otherwise, for any statements made in this document.

Header Image: Lunch-box sized satellites (CubeSats) used for the Buccaneer and Biarri space missions. (Source: Australian Department of Defence)

[1] UNSW Sydney, ‘RAAF invests $10 million in UNSW Canberra Space missions,’ UNSW Newsroom (2017).

[2] F. Burke, ‘Space 2.0: bringing space tech down to Earth,’ The Space Review, 27 April 2009.

[3] Ibid.

[4] NASA, ‘CubeSat 101 – Basic Concepts and Process for First-Time CubeSat Developers,’ NASA CubeSat Launch Initiative, NASA Website, 2017.

[5] ‘What are SmallSats and CubeSats?,’ NASA Website, 2015.

[6] Cubesat, 1U-3U CubeSat Design Specification, Revision 13, The CubeSat Program, 2014.

[7] Cubesat, 6U CubeSat Design Specification, Revision 1.0, The CubeSat Program, 2018.

[8] European Space Agency, ‘Ten Ways 3D Printing Could Change Space,’ Space Engineering & Technology, 2014.

[9] U. Tejonmayam, ‘ISRO creates history, launches 104 satellites in one go,’ The Times of India, 15 February 2017.

[10] H. Kramer, ‘Buccaneer CubeSat Mission,’ eoPortal Directory, 2017.

[11] Royal Australia Air Force, ‘Jindalee Operational Radar Network,’ 2018.

[12] Kramer, loc cit.

[13] Ibid.

[14] UNSW Canberra, ‘M1 satellite on track for September launch,’ 2018.

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