Back in space

Youtube video of the launch from Cape Canaveral in Florida
19 April 2017

Three Australian-made CubeSats have been launched into space to monitor the thermosphere, a layer of the atmosphere that absorbes much of the highly energetic solar radiation.

Almost a decade ago, in 2008, a Senate report Lost in Space established that Australian space industry and science had drifted and lost its purpose. Its call for a change in direction led to the establishment of an Australian Space Research Program in 2009, and a Decadal Plan for boosting our space capabilities, released by a National Committee for Space Science in 2010.

One of the objectives of this new policy focus was to develop a world-recognised space capability and related infrastructure for Australia.

There have also been calls for establishing a dedicated Space Agency. Among these voices is Professor Simon Driver from the University of Western Australia who recently wrote in The Conversation:

"If Australia is to capitalise on its strengths in space tracking as well as space science, and is to get on board with the burgeoning commercial space industry, it’s time that we considered forming a space agency of our own."

A space agency, experts say, could further boost Australia's capacities, which already have come a long way.

According to the Australian Space Industry Association, the Australian sector contributes around $4 billion per year to the economy.

And Australia's space capabilities also contribute to major international projects, as recently demonstrated by the launch of three Australian nanosatellites, or CubeSats, to the International Space Station.

It was only the third time that Australian-built satellites have been sent into space, with the last launch dating 15 years back.

The three Australian cubesats were built at the University of Sydney, University of New South Wales and the University of Adelaide, also involving the Australian National University and the University of South Australia.

The three nanosatellites were among 28 satellites sent to space by an international mission called QB50. Funded by the European Union, the project is a partnership of university teams from all over the world.

Its aim is to explore a layer of space surrounding the Earth we still have scant knowledge of: the thermosphere.

Located about 95 kilometres to 500 kilometres from the Earth's surface, this layer underlying the Earth's exosphere is a turbulent region with extreme temperature gradients.

So far it has been largely inaccessible to scientific exploration, but the layer matters to us.

As it is charged up through the sun's ultraviolet and X-ray radiation the thermosphere generates electrical disturbances that can affect our GPS and communication systems, and influence our climate and wheather.

The QB50 project aims to explore this part of Earth's atmosphere by placing 50 CubeSats that are designed to perform high-quality measurements.

The advantage of these nanosatellites is that they each weigh just a few kilograms and are built from multiple standard units measuring each 10 cubic centimetres. First developed in 1999 in the US, CubeSats have increasingly been used as a low-cost platform for space research.

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