Australia has an exciting opportunity to re-join the international space race in which it was once a key participant, and a group of Victorian scientists are leading the way.
Troy McCann, managing director of the Melbourne Space Program (MSP), leads a team of over 200 students and academics based at the University of Melbourne who are united by their ambition to launch their first satellite by 2018.
Although it will be little bigger than a coffee cup and is expected to remain in orbit for only a few months, the team believe it will eventually be followed by hundreds more.
And their long-term vision is to see the globe surrounded by a network of small, interconnected, disposable satellites that will revolutionise telecommunications and earth monitoring from space.
McCann says the new space race is not up where traditional satellites operate, tens of thousands of kilometres above earth, but in low-earth orbits just a few hundred kilometres above us.
Using state-of-the-art miniaturised technology and a world-first inflatable antenna, the Melbourne Space Program believe they could launch their satellites at a cost of under A$100,000 each, yet they will be able to transmit more data than much larger conventional satellites.
“Very low earth orbit is cheaper to launch into, and at that distance we can do some really interesting earth observation and telecommunication that just weren’t possible before,” says McCann.
“We are eventually hoping to be able to form wireless mesh networks of small-scale satellites that can all talk to each other; like a mobile network in space.
“And apart from telecommunications there is so much more that we can do cost-effectively from there – for example monitoring agriculture, soil moisture measuring and early bushfire detection.’’
McCann says Australia was once a world leader in space technology, but fell behind after passing over an early invitation to join the European Space Agency.
“There are now only two OECD nations with no government-funded space agency – Australia and Iceland. Even New Zealand has one,’’ says McCann.
“We missed our first opportunity to stay at forefront of space technology, but now we have another shot.’’
In the new space race, he says, we are starting at same time as rest of the world.
“All the big tech players, such as Facebook and Google, are currently experimenting with the communication potential of these low-orbit networks,’’ says McCann.
“When NASA sends up its next Mars Rover it will be accompanied by two tiny cube satellites which will orbit Mars to beam information from the rover back to earth.’’
The growing international launch industry could be a lucrative opportunity for Australia, McCann says, because the country’s geographical position means it is well placed for launches into a number of strategically important orbits.
He is also excited about Melbourne Space Program’s potential to incubate students with good ideas that can spin off into start-ups.
And there are many other projects waiting to be tackled, such as drones that can operate in low atmospheric pressures like those found on Mars and other planets, where they could soon supersede ground-based rovers.
For McCann and the Melbourne Space Program, the sky really is the limit.