Improving space situational awareness to map satellite traffic in orbit

“The research is predominantly about space situational awareness… It’s understanding the space weather events that can hurt satellites, understanding what is out there in terms of other satellites and space junk—predicting and avoiding collisions, and eventually space traffic management.”

A major investment by the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) is increasing Australia’s contribution to space situational awareness worldwide, joining global efforts to accurately predict the movement of satellites in Low Earth Orbit.

Director of UNSW Canberra Space, Professor Russell Boyce, is working across a range of initiatives funded by the $9.96 million RAAF investment to build Australia’s capability, including ground-based research and the building of three “Cubesat” spacecraft to be launched across two space missions in 2018 and 2019.

These missions will demonstrate satellite-based technologies ad capabilities for RAAF, and extend the ground-based research to improve space situational awareness, which Professor Boyce described as “understanding what’s going on in the space near the earth where we fly satellites”.

“It’s understanding the space weather events that can hurt satellites, understanding what is out there in terms of other satellites and space junk—predicting and avoiding collisions, and eventually space-traffic management,” he said.

“The core of what we do in SSA research here at UNSW Canberra is to make advances in the ways we simulate the trajectories of satellites, and to understand satellite aerodynamic effects—this lets us predict more accurately how the spacecraft interacts with its environment.”

One of the new research projects that will improve Australia’s space situational awareness is a satellite wind tunnel. This low-density, high-speed wind tunnel will simulate the environment of satellites in low-earth orbit.

Tests using the wind tunnel will help identify new effects of the environment on the satellites, and will help validate the results of virtual simulations used to model the physics of the satellites’ movement.

Finally, the simulations are informed by using UNSW Canberra’s space tracking telescopes to measure the reflections of light off satellites currently in orbit to track their movement. This information, along with the virtual simulations and the simulations in the wind tunnel, will allow Australia to better contribute to global efforts around space situational awareness.

“We hope this research will one day improve space traffic management systems internationally,” said Professor Boyce.

While this work is not coordinated globally, there are major efforts around the world to add more to international space situational awareness—the Department of Defence here makes significant contributions on Australia’s behalf.

UNSW Canberra Space, with over 40 space engineers, scientists and research students, is Australia’s leading space capability and space program, is currently jointly operating the Buccaneer cubesat in orbit with Defence Science and Technology Group, and has a further four funded spacecraft in train, including the three RAAF-funded cubesats.