Curtin University teams with NASA for satellite first

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Comes as WA's space industry continues to expand. Image - Curtin University.

Curtin University’s Space Science Technology Centre (SSTC) has gone from strength to strength in recent years. Startup News reported on the SSTC’s Binar cubesat back in 2019, the name meaning ‘fireball’ in Noongar. Then, the university partnered with the European Space Agency to provide mission control capability for the project.

Early in 2020, the project continued to gather momentum as it was announced that the Binar satellites would be launched into orbit from the Japanese Experiment Module Kibo on the International Space Station (ISS), courtesy of Japanese space startup Space BD.

Space BD is the official service provider selected by the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) in the area of ISS utilisation and satellite launch service, and will also provide Curtin with technical integration services, and other support services.

Late 2021 saw the culmination of years of work become reality when the satellite was launched aboard a SpaceX rocket in August. On 7 October 2021, the cubesat was released from the Japanese module of the ISS.

The promising programme garnered additional state budget support in April this year, Startup News reported the Western Australian government has announced a $6.5 million injection into space, with the money going partly towards Australian Remote Operators for Space and Earth (AROSE) and Curtin University’s Binar Space Program.

The Binar programme would receive $2.5 million from the pool, which will facilitate the growth of the space industry through enabling WA startups and small to medium-sized enterprises in testing their technology in space for commercialisation.

The four-year co-investment program will also assist in training students in the development, testing and operation of spacecraft.

Over the next 18 months, Curtin aims to send six more CubeSat spacecrafts into space, forming WA’s first satellite constellation.

The cubesat

WA’s unique take on the cubesat sets it apart from many other similar spacecraft. Designed and built from scratch by a brains trust of 12 Curtin staff and student engineers, the main elements are only half the size of an average smartphone, 10cm by 10cm by 2.5cm.

The appeal of Curtin’s approach came from its compact single-circuit board system. SSTC Director and John Curtin Distinguished Professor Phil Bland from Curtin’s School of Earth and Planetary Sciences said in 2019: “The Curtin team has managed to put all the systems required to operate the satellite, including the power, computer, steering and communications, on a single eight-layer printed circuit board, which at 10cm by 10cm by 2.5cm is about the size of a rather small sandwich.”

The platform presented a more cost-effective alternative than those currently being produced by other manufacturers.

The latest partnership with NASA

The first ever optical communications from a 1U (10 cm x 10 cm) cubesat is the goal for Curtin researchers in the latest news from the university.

The partnership between Curtin’s SSTC and NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory spin off company Chascii, “… will allow Chascii to begin the implementation of its INSPIRE connectivity network along the solar system, starting with cislunar space,” said Chascii founder and CEO Dr Jose Velazco.

“Under this partnership we plan to pursue joint flight projects right away, starting with LEO [low earth orbit] and lunar missions,” added Dr Velazco.

The Binar spacecraft developed by Curtin University are based on a revolutionary integration of the spacecraft’s avionics. Chascii seeks to pair this miniature package with its novel optical terminals in order to enable the next generation of affordable smallsats, thousands of which Chascii plans to deploy along the solar system.

“Chascii is developing a suite of unique optical terminals which we plan to integrate into Binar spacecraft to begin laying out the space internet.”

John Curtin Distinguished Professor Phil Bland, the Director of Curtin’s Space Science and Technology Centre, said he was excited by the unprecedented possibilities that the new partnership with Chascii presented.

“With this partnership we will demonstrate the first optical communications from a 1U CubeSat ever, bringing high-speed communications into the realm of nanosatellites,” Professor Bland said.

Professor Bland said that would be the springboard for the development of a 3U Binar Inter-Satellite omnidirectional Optical Communicator (ISOC) spacecraft, which would form the basis for a swarm nanosatellite optical communications network.

“As a planetary scientist, pairing the technology that Jose has invented with our small spacecraft to develop a highly integrated optical communications solution is tremendously exciting,” Professor Bland said.

“It can provide spaceborne cloud computing, as well as terrestrial gigabit communications, but because it is affordable and modular, it can be applied to multiple environments. It can provide connectivity not just in Earth orbit, but at the Moon, Mars, and beyond.”