Looking up for our future in space

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  Last updated March 6, 2018 at 4:58 pm

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Australia’s presence in space can change the world – and it will certainly change Australia.


Credit: Magnilion


The future is brighter than an orbiting Tesla if we play our cards right. But what is possible, what will the future hold?


Let’s look at some of the areas Australia can focus and deliver massive benefits for not only us, but the entire world.


Agriculture


The farm might seem like an unlikely place to start for a glimpse into Australia’s high-tech future, but while it might not seem it, farms are already hotbeds of innovation.


Remote monitoring of soil and crop conditions by aerial and orbiting autonomous technologies will be as natural as checking weather reports.


The cube-sats provide “big picture” conditions, such as the water and salinity content of the soils, while drones work tirelessly to scan the crops with infrared and ultraviolet sensors to monitor leaf health for infection.


One dataset seamlessly overlaps another, all the while new wavelengths of light, and ever better sensors are utilised to add extra information to monitor conditions.


The greatest changes will be with AI integrating all the information into recommendations for farmers to employ on their fields. Plant this there, spray that pesticide here, it’s time to harvest this crop now. Perhaps they will have all of that done automatically as GPS guided tractors already can work without much supervision, and cattle are guided into milking stations by drones or even wearable collars that track their milk production and locations.


Forget Silicon Valley, the high-tech future is in the Yarra Valley.


Australia’s Sky Muster satellite prior to launch. Credit: NBNco


Communications


The launch of Australia’s satellite internet provider, NBNco’s Sky Muster II, is a glimpse into the future for mass internet access across sparsely populated regions.


It is likely that satellites will be the way that millions of the poorest will finally gain access to the information, whether it be nations or even companies like SpaceX or Facebook that provide this.


However, the future for satellite communications look very different to the giant comsats of the past, orbiting at 35,786km in geostationary orbit.


In that special orbit, the satellite appears to stay motionless in the sky, allowing it to provide constant communication line-of-sight to users on the ground. The distance means that even at the speed of light you get a minimum round-trip travel time of 240 milliseconds (that amount of lag, or latency, feels like an eternity today).


If you are expecting a reply to what you just said over video then it will arrive half a second in total after you asked! The distance also means the the signal strength decreases, which you experience as a drop in bandwidth or even further reduction in the download speeds.


Small or far away?


The new era of smaller, cheaper nanosatellites or cube-sats is to deploy thousands in Low Earth Orbit (LEO), rather than one at Geostationary Orbit.


Being closer – potentially as close as 335km in a Very-Low-Earth-Orbit (VLEO) with SpaceX’s Starlink constellation – these satellites have only a hundredth of the travel-time.


They are also able serving far fewer people or devices per satellite meaning you get more bandwidth, as well as lower power demands for communicating. This means to send/receive data is faster and cheaper all in a smaller device.


The future in satellite communications seems to be assured, but there are still a few challenges. Paying for thousands of these satellites, as well as traffic management in space and regulating their disposal at the end of their lives to prevent a Gravity-style space junk nightmare, all need to be solved.


Put another way, there’s a lot of cool technology, engineering, economics not to mention space law to work on to make all this possible!


Climate forecasting


Currently Australia relies on other countries’ satellites for climate tracking and weather forecasting, borrowing or buying data from organisations such as NASA or NOAA.


The Copernicus program of the ESA shows the range of monitoring from space that is possible – everything from atmospheric air quality, land conditions, ice and forest changes, sea-level rise, current mapping and more.


New satellite technologies will extend the range of observations, increasing the frequency of repeated visits to locations and improving resolution of how fine you can see with nanosatellites deployed lower in the atmosphere.


Given the unique climate conditions of Australia, from bushfires to cyclones, droughts to flooding, as well as a range of ecological and agricultural demands, we will need to construct dedicated satellites.


These will be built to our own specifications and for our own uses. Our satellites will enable us to fully map our nation’s environmental systems – its water, energy and carbon cycles.


Ocean management


Australia relies on its oceans in a way that few other countries do.


Surrounded by water, we monitor a large swath of Earth for search and rescue. But we also have a booming fisheries industry, one which needs careful management to keep at sustainable levels.


Teach a satellite to fish


Satellites can monitor the ocean for fishing vessels, tracking their catch through satellite internet connections and providing real-time prices for this haul all while guaranteeing their safety through satellite automatic identification system (S-AIS).


Through new nanosatellite swarms (such as by Spire) the information contained within the S-AIS messaging is evermore detailed and valuable.


The world’s shipping fleet tracked by Automatic Identification System. Credit: Spire


The ability of machine learning, or AI, to scan the seas and detect vessels that are not providing their catch information will be let Australia know of illegal fishing in our waters or to alert our neighbours of such activity in theirs. By integrating satellite observation, current models and local catch data it can be possible for AI to predict both where and where not to fish allowing the Nation to sustainably fish into the future.


We will know how much to fish in an area. We can track every vessel, and potentially even individuals, who attempt to fish in an area. Enforcing that will require a new level of agency and government involvement but it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine satellites pinpointing offenders and drones flying autonomously to deliver a fine.


Saving the Reef


We also have the world-famous Great Barrier Reef, and less renowned but equally biodiverse Ningaloo Reef, to monitor and safeguard.


Earth Observations can remotely monitor the health of the Reef, as well as track certain pollutants in the waters as well as effluent discharges from farming.


The European Space Agency’s Sentinel-2 was able to detect the bleaching in 2017 of the Great Barrier Reef. Satellites with hyperspectral (i.e. multiple colours or wavelengths of light) in high detail constantly monitoring the Reefs may potentially predict such disasters.



Credit: ESA


The way we will live


The Internet of Things networks are growing rapidly. Credit: Mathisworks


Australia, powered by the promise and opportunities provided by a new golden-era of innovation, will be vastly different to the one we live in today.


With Australian ingenuity using technology developed by and for the space agency, we will tackle not only international and off-planet challenges, but also find solutions to some of the unique domestic problems that the country faces.


The new era of satellites require the revolution in AI to handle the torrents of data from sensors above and around us.


The Internet of Things (IoT) is only today in its infancy. By 2050 it will be a mature reality, with everything connected to everything else.


The satellites above will seamlessly provide cover for the wifi connected networks on the ground to create a single digital world overlapping and physically coexisting within the real world.


Companies such as Fleet see this Internet of Things as one of the key economic drivers for space, with swarms of nanosatellites providing the backbone communications that underpin it.


All new, safer and more reliable trucking


Australian farms will check the state of their crops as easily as we check the weather today, and decisions on what to plant will be guided by AI based on what will be in demand using models of global consumption patterns as much as growing condition predictions.


The satellite-based IoT will be powering all new, safer and more reliable trucking and transport across the country’s massive expanses. Transporting goods from city to city will be faster, easier and cheaper than ever before, with computer-controlled autonomous trucks and trains traversing vast distances.


With real time notifications and tracking, these will be expected and met by AI-controlled robots in dispatch centres, ready to immediately distribute wares to smaller, potentially still human driven trucks for efficient local deliveries.


Faster and more convenient than ever, it will slash transport costs for large and small businesses alike.


Fishing will be tracked in real time, determining how much to take and even where to land the catch for the greatest profit. Guiding that, however, will be government-imposed limits on the amount that can be fished based on complete modelling of the ocean and fish populations.


Mining the Moon


Farmers will see new productivity records, fuelled by a steady stream of information to assist them in monitoring and managing crops and livestock.


Advances in satellite climate tracking will have also changed the profile of agricultural areas, with suggestions of crops more suited to climatic conditions and providing them with future profiles of water availability, allowing them to prepare in advance.


In 2050, Australia’s deep space communication facilities will have been vital in the establishment of a moon colony, providing real-time contact between Earth and the settlement.


Australia’s mining companies could be major players on the moon, not only having provided the resources to build the colony, but using their expertise in remote-operated mining pioneered in places such as the Pilbara to begin exploratory digs on the moon for minerals for use there and on Earth.


The first people to have walked on Mars will have also been in contact with Earth through our communications facilities, and using communications equipment on the red planet designed and built using Australian expertise.


‘Aussienaut’ achieves her dream


The discovery and harvesting of fresh water on Mars will also have been achieved using tech developed by Australians in collaboration with international partners.


The second generation of the water-sourcing technology, honed and perfected in Australia, will be nearing completion ready for sending with the next Mars mission.


Although not a priority when the Australian space agency was first established, Australia will be celebrating its third astronaut in space.


Inspired by Andy Thomas as a child, and then provided the opportunity by the space agency (announced when she was in high school), the electrical engineer turned astronaut, dubbed the “Aussienaut” by the media, will have achieved her lifelong dream.


Children across the country, inspired by the opportunities generated by the space agency and the Aussienaut’s trips to space will be more interested in STEM than ever, with all new levels of innovation and technological development boosting Australia’s GDP.


The clever country has regained its cleverness.


Spin-off tech from the next Space Age


The spin-off tech will provide unpredictable benefits for all Australians, and it’ll come from solving problems which we literally don’t know yet. Such is the value of space – requiring answers in the future to questions we don’t even know today. Nor can we possibly imagine what will come of this next Space Age.


Perhaps the best guide to the amazing changes to our lives that space travel can bring, is to look at what it has given us in the past.


One of the best known space technology spin-offs has to be the Teflon nonstick frying pan from NASA’s Apollo program. Sadly it’s not true. Teflon was in fact created by the Du Pont company in 1938, two decades before NASA was formed.


But the real spinoffs from space exploration are just as awesome, and unexpected, all helpfully catalogued in a greatest hits list by NASA. Some of the highlights:



  • Infrared Thermometer – the Diatek Corporation of San Diego adopted NASA’s IR sensor technology to measure patient’s temperatures by placing the aural thermometer in your ear. In the US alone two billion temperature measurements are taken each year, and with this space technology taking less than two seconds for a precise and reliable measurement that adds up to a big time saving.

  • Body Imaging – a direct spin off from Apollo Lunar Landing Program of the 1960s when NASA needed to computer-enhance the digital signals of survey scans of the Moon. The technology found its way in the Landsat Earth satellites and ultimately into medical imaging techniques like computer-aided tomography scanning (CATScans) and Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI). Even better, the combination of the two types of scan is made possible using NASA’s HICAP software.

  • Solar Power – seriously. NASA pioneered Photovoltaic (PV) cells for their spacecraft.

  • Storage of bone marrow – The benefits extend far beyond technology, with NASA developing a way to successfully freeze and store bone marrow for use by doctors.

  • Food safety procedures – NASA worked with food company Pillsbury to develop procedures which have since become the basis for most food safety manufacture and handling procedures in use.


It’s not just NASA, the European Space Agency has claimed to have fostered 400 space-tech spinoff companies, leading to technologies such as:



  • Laser communication for aircraft to transmit huge amounts of data to ground stations up to 100km away.

  • Electric ‘cruizer’ for those who want an environmentally friendly way to have the convenience of a motorbike in rush hour traffic, created by a Dutch company of course.

  • Traffic lights that automatically adjust to traffic flow to minimise queues.


An Australian space agency similarly developing technology, or inspiring external companies, to come up with solutions to its space problems will lead to all new products with reach far beyond just space.


Australia’s space agency will have a major impact on science, and society, boosting jobs, collaborations and opportunities overseas for space companies. In this special feature, we take stock of Australia’s current role in space and what the future might look like – for the space industry, for science, the young professionals pursuing their dream jobs, and for the country as a whole.


Keeping satellites in the loop


The final frontier, Down Under


The space jobs of the future


What the Australian space agency must do


A young professional’s view of space


 




About the Author

Alan Duffy
Associate Professor Alan Duffy is an astronomer and physicist at Swinburne University of Technology, Melbourne. He's also lead scientist for Australia's Science Channel. You can find him on Twitter @astroduff.