Technology being developed for space search and rescue is already saving lives on earth, according to NASA, which is overseeing a project with the Adelaide space industry.
When an astronaut rolls the moon rover or trips over space junk, the lunar emergency scenario which unfolds takes search and rescue, literally, to a whole new level.
On earth yachties, bikers, pilots, and hikers have a remarkable tendency to have accidents in obscure, out-of-the-way places, but help is rarely more than the flick of a switch away.
So how can astronauts, operating within extremely fragile spacesuits and pressurised buggies, be given the same degree of reassurance?
Adelaide-based company Safety from Space, the University of South Australia and Flinders University, have been working with the SmartSat CRC (Cooperative Research Centre) and NASA’s Search and Rescue unit since 2020, to develop an advanced, low-power emergency radio system.
NASA Search and Rescue Mission Manager, Dr Lisa Mazzuca, told an audience at the Lot Fourteen business and technology precinct in Adelaide, that the basis of this technology is already saving lives.
But recent innovations by the SmartSat team in advanced signal processing and a unique low-profile antenna can boost performance.
“When people are in distress in remote areas, it’s often not enough to just know that they’re having problems,” SmartSat CRC Research Program Manager, Andrew Barton, told Cosmos. “There’s also a strong need to coordinate the emergency response effort.”
It’s a problem on Earth. But it’s will be an order of magnitude more difficult on the Moon.
The “Resilient Emergency and Search and Rescue Communication” (RESARC) project is looking at ways to solve this problem for future lunar operations.
“While in its early stages, we now have the further potential of this Australian-developed tech playing an important role in Lunar and Martian exploration missions under the Artemis program,” says SmartSat CEO Prof Andy Koronios.
Live satellite tests from a vehicle in the Adelaide Hills last year, demonstrated the feasibility of the upgrades. The new LunaSAR (Search and Rescue) project will now examine ways to integrate a miniaturised beacon into space suits and lunar rovers.
It must provide two-way communication. The signal must be able to be traced. And it must connect to a small constellation of satellites orbiting the Moon, without sucking battery packs dry.
The lunar-orbit satellites do the heavy lifting by boosting the signal to the moon base and mission control and then relay any reply.
“That will allow the authorities to confirm details of the distress situation before they mount a response effort,” says Barton. “Astronauts will get a confirmation message once their distress alert has been sent out, giving them confidence that somebody is on the way. They can then make decisions based on knowledge that might increase their chances of survival.”
“The resources available to respond to emergencies are going to be very limited and dangerous. So it’s going to be crucial to have this two-way messaging to marshal a suitable rescue attempt without compromising the safety of other astronauts, or the rest of the space mission,” says Barton.
“As part of the LunaSAR research, we’re currently looking into ways to demonstrate this new technology using small Earth-orbiting satellites. We’re also making early plans for what a Moon orbiting satellite system would look like,” he explains.
NASA aims to roll out a LunaSAR system for initial operations in 2028. Getting there will need a series of engineering steps to prove the technology is mature enough for the lunar environment.
“This is pioneering work that takes such a dedicated international partnership to get to fruition,” NASA’s Dr Mazzuca says.