Testing space materials

Final frontier exam: is it fit for space?

A new network to put space technology through its paces has been set up, to make sure Australian-developed products can withstand the radiation, vibrations, temperatures, and vacuum of space travel.

Checking that equipment can cope with cosmic rays, solar winds or sudden radiation showers is critical as companies vie to be a part of the new global space race – currently they risk missing out on contracts or having to send satellites, spacecraft, or their parts overseas to be tested.

$2.5 million in federal funding will boost facilities for the network, which comprises the Australian National University, Nova Systems, the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO), Steritech, the University of Wollongong, and Saber Astronautics.

ANSTO’s leader of the Centre for Accelerator Science, Dr Ceri Brenner, says space companies will be able to hand their gear over to the network, which will do all the necessary testing then accredit it so the company can get it into the supply chain.

“If it needs testing to get off-planet then the network will link up all the different types of testing,” Brenner says.

“One of the areas they recognised as big hole in sovereign capability in Australia was on the radiation side.

“So we’ll test the total ionising dose. Give something a bath of radiation over a period of time to see how it might age in space, that’s level one. Then levels two and three are more around single-event effects. When something that would cause a sudden, immediate or abrupt change to a component.”

Anything with electronic parts will be the most sensitive, she says, and just one radiation particle could disrupt a system and lead to a “catastrophic outcome”.

“This is the nightmare with any kind of space tech,” Brenner says.

“It could cut off control systems, communications, and so on. So the chip or whatever has to be shielded, or use advanced electronics that can recover to make sure it will survive the launch, and then the cold, vacuum, radioactive conditions of space.”

ANSTO’s facilities include cobalt-60 gamma irradiators and the Australian Synchotron; at ANU they will use the Wombat XL, its Space Simulation Facility, and the Heavy Ion Accelerator. Other details of what the partners bring to the network are listed here.

ANU Institute for Space director Professor Anna Moore said the funding will help space innovations break into new markets, and make sure payloads survive.

Moore said companies who had not worked on space before can “now cast their gaze upwards and to the final frontier”.