Australian-made satellites blast off to the ISS

It’s bright. It’s noisy. It’s nerve-wracking. But the launch of two satellites Saturday night is just the latest in a long series of countdowns needed to get Australia back in the space race.

At 5.37 pm AEST Saturday, the Binar-1 and CUAVA-1 CubeSats are set to be piggy-backed aboard a SpaceX rocket to the International Space Station.

An illustration of a satellite in orbit: an australian cubesat to be launched by spacex.
Orbit mock-up of CUAVA-1. Credit: Reign MacMillan (Sydney Uni).

Both are technology demonstrators, and both are just steps towards far more ambitious projects.

Iver Cairns, professor of physics at the University of Sydney, says the launch is a “real turning point” for Australia’s embryonic space project. “And it’s one that can be disastrous: the rocket can explode, or be put in the wrong orbit.”

But it’s ultimately just another stepping stone.

First, the projects had to get off the drawing board. Then, the CubeSats had to be built and successfully tested.

“Then, there’s this 10 minutes of terror as you watch the launch,” says Cairns, who was involved in building CUAVA-1.

More tense times will quickly follow. 

They have to be deployed from the space station; they have to activate; they have to contact the Adelaide-based Responsive Space Operations Centre; and finally their payloads have to work.

“There’s a lot of ‘holding breath’ moments to come,” he says.

Read more: space news Return to the Moon will have to wait

Binar-1 is a tiny 10cm cube. It’s entirely Australian designed and built, and it’s intended to enable satellites to know where they are – even when skimming close to the Moon’s surface.

A palstic black cube on a table.
The Binar-1 satellite is a 10cm cube. Credit: Curtin University.

CUAVA-1 is three times bigger. Also designed and built in Australia, it’s a collaboration between several Australian universities, corporations and government labs. It’s carrying four Australian experiments and two technology demonstrators.

Both CubeSats are building blocks for much bigger and better things.

Director of Curtin University’s Space Science and Technology Centre, Phil Bland, led the team of students who assembled Binar-1. Its mission is to test cameras needed to capture starfields, which future CubeSats can use for navigation.

“The idea is that they will go into very low lunar orbit, or will have lunar orbits that get to a very low periapsis around the moon,” Bland says.

Binar-1 has been built with consumer “off-the-shelf” components (remember, your average smartphone is far more computationally powerful than anything the Apollo 11 lunar lander had). It also exploits lessons learnt from assembling space observatories in the outback to ensure resilience and functionality. 

Cairns says his CUAVA-1 tested every aspect of Australia’s emerging space industry, from precision assembly to regulatory requirements. 

But not every launch was successful.

“When we built and tested the CubeSat the first time, it turned out its dimensions were very, very slightly wrong. A tiny bit of warping, less than the width of a human hair, was enough to prevent it from fitting in the deployment system. So we missed the launch.”

A man stands over a desk working on a box-like satellite.
Xueliang Bai with CUAVA-1. Credit: Reign MacMillan (Sydney Uni).

The CubeSat was rebuilt – even as unexpected launch certification issues arose around its use of amateur-band radio frequencies.

“Space is getting much easier,” Cairns says. “But it’s still very hard.”

CUAVA-1 will demonstrate the spaceworthiness of several ideas. One is piggy-backing power cabling for transferring data. It’s similar to using a house’s electric wiring as internet cabling.

“It saves weight. It saves volume. It reduces the number of vulnerable connections that can fail,” he says. “On the scale of a CubeSat, that’s a sizeable improvement.”

Then there’s a 1cm aperture telescopic camera. This will attempt to prove technology that will sift through the complex tangle of light from binary stars for traces of planets.

CUAVA-2 is waiting to incorporate the lessons of its older sibling.

“It’s also got some novel instruments and novel technology,” Cairns says. “But this one will be ready to share useful data with the community.”

That includes hyperspectral images of coastal marine environments, and using GPS signal reflections off the open ocean to infer sea states and winds. “A lot of time and effort goes into a CubeSat,” he says. “But not so much that you can’t afford to take risks.”

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