A CubeSat that will split in two so it can fly in formation will use a “bee’s eye” sensor to feed information back to Earth, Australia’s new space commander has told parliament.
Air Vice-Marshall Cath Roberts also told a federal inquiry into the space industry about the dangers of space debris as space gets more congested.
The M2 CubeSat was launched into orbit in March, and earlier this month demonstrated Australia’s first in-orbit use of artificial intelligence (AI) by correctly recognising hand-written characters.
That was a crucial test of its capability before the 12-unit spacecraft is split into two six-unit craft using a built-in spring.
Roberts told the inquiry that the M2 mission, a collaboration between UNSW Canberra Space and the Royal Australian Air Force, is testing a range of new, Australian-made technology.
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“It flies in formation,” she said. “That allows you to test how to fly in Low Earth Orbit, which is tricky.
“It also allows us to test comms and allows us to test whether or not we can detect the two satellites that are very close together – that’s [important] for space domain awareness, [for] knowing what is going on.
“And… we have a sensor that’s a new development, a sensor, which is a bit like a bee’s eye so it can detect motion.”
The two parts of M2 will communicate with each other and control the formation using an intra-satellite link. Still whole, M2 has star-tracking technology for navigation, onboard computers and processing power.
The neuromorphic event-based sensor, which mimics biological sensing abilities, will detect new or different things happening in space.
UNSW Canberra Space director Professor Russell Boyce says the AI test was a significant step towards developing “intelligent, networked satellite constellation technologies”.
“This is a necessary step before separating the two spacecraft from each other … and, as the mission unfolds, coupling our AI algorithms and on-board sensors to perform tasks such as cloud detection and maritime surveillance,” Boyce says.
“The UNSW Canberra Space team has been tirelessly working behind the scenes towards the separation of dual-satellite M2 in the near term.
“The lessons learned from this mission will make a significant contribution to the ramp up in Australia’s sovereign space technologies, expertise and capabilities that can only come through tackling the challenges of space again and again.”
Defence announced earlier this year that it was creating a new space command, and that Roberts would start the top space gig (as Space Division Head) in January. She is already the head of Air Force Capability, with responsibility for space.