Tiny rural town a critical link in Australia’s space mission

A small dusty town in regional South Australia, once described as “a hero of the 20th century – a hissing, steaming hub of mighty locomotives sitting at the crossroads of a growing nation,” is back in the connections business – the space connection business.

A bundle of metal spars and wires sitting outside the small South Australian town of Peterborough is the public face of an advanced communications system linking the Australian Space Agency to its first satellite.

The SpIRIT (Space Industry – Responsive – Intelligent – Thermal) nano-satellite was launched on December 1. Its primary payload is Italy’s HERMES Gamma and X-Ray Burst detector – an instrument designed to examine what happens the moment two stars collide.

But the 11.5kg, 20cm by 20xm by 10cm 6U CubeSat is also an Australian technology demonstrator, bringing together Inovor Technology’s satellite computing system, Neumann Space’s metal-powered thruster and the University of Melbourne’s thermal management technology.

Read more: Bogong thruster powers a space race

All rely on a roughly 10-minute window within every 90-minute orbit to pump data back to Earth and receive fresh instructions.

That’s where Peterborough comes into the picture.

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The Nova Systems Australia and New Zealand Space Precinct is developed to provide low and mid Earth orbit space communications, as well as orbital surveillance technology. (Image: Nova Systems.)

The 21-hectare Nova Systems Australia and New Zealand Space Precinct was built to expand the reach – and automate – of the increasingly congested satellite communications market. And to give Australia a sovereign ability to do so.

“It was an exciting time waiting for the first communications with SpIRIT, that initial acquisition,” says Nova Systems manager Phil Krix. “Communications were established via NAIGS from the get-go, and a rhythm of operations was quickly established with the teams.”

About 8400 satellites were active in orbit as of January this year. That’s up from 6500 at the same time in 2020.

All must “phone home” regularly, causing orbital communications networks to become just as congested as the space lanes themselves.

The Peterborough precinct became operational in 2019. It enables satellite service providers to install their own dedicated antenna into a secure network.

One of these UHF terminals serves the Nova Autonomous Intelligent Ground Station (NAIGS), which was developed to automate the Australian Space Agency’s communications with SpIRIT. This minimises the need for ‘humans in the loop’ – automatically choosing optimal conditions and orbital alignments to establish a link, whatever time of day or night. Packets of instructions and data are then prioritised for upload and download.

“Once spacecraft and payload commissioning are complete, we can further explore the application of the intelligent elements of NAIGS to the mission,” says Krix.

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