Saturday, April 03, 2010

Orroral Valley Tracking Station, and Australia's new space initiatives.

Watch this empty space  

Cheryl Jones, The Australian Higher Education Supplement, March 31 2010

NASA's Honeysuckle Creek tracking station near Canberra received the world's first images of the Apollo 11 moonwalk in 1969, but staff at nearby Orroral Valley tracking station enjoyed a private viewing of the event. They swung their 26m dish antenna on to the moon and got their own pictures, according to a former staff member.

"We weren't actually tracking anything, so we had a look at it," Philip Clark tells the HES. He was an electronics and radio communications technician at Orroral, 50km south of Canberra in Namadgi national park, when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin took their first steps outside the lunar module.
"It was for our interest only," says Clark, who was later promoted to senior operations supervisor of the facility, established by NASA in 1965 to track near-Earth-orbit scientific satellites. Clark was one of a small group of Australians in the space race at the height of the Cold War. Australia was a space power in the 1960s, at the forefront of satellite and rocket technology, and the site of ground stations to track and communicate with spacecraft exploring our solar system.  But Australia's foray into the final frontier is now so long ago that it is the stuff of archeology. A research team led by Flinders University archeologist Alice Gorman will soon start digging the Orroral site.

Australia remains a world leader in astronomy. But that discipline is not normally classified within the fields of space science and engineering, which encompass satellite technology and space exploration. Experts warn that Australia's decline in these areas is costing us dearly and putting our national security at risk.  Now the space industry is being relaunched by the federal government. The big question is whether it will stay in orbit.

When Australia launched WRESAT-1 from the Woomera rocket range in South Australia in 1967, it was only the fourth nation to launch a satellite and the third to launch one from its own soil. But a British satellite launched just four years later aboard a Black Arrow R3 rocket was the last satellite to blast off from the desert site.

Australia owns no satellites. Optus has several communications satellites but they are owned by Singapore Telecommunications. The global market for commercial satellite-based products and services is estimated at more than $100 billion a year, according to the report of a Senate inquiry into Australian space science and industry. Released in 2008, the report, titled Lost in Space, says the use of satellites for Earth observation is "the most important commercial aspect of space for Australia". Australia is a heavy user of satellites but has "very limited national capabilities" in the technology, Australian National University earth and planetary scientist Marc Norman tells the HES. "We use data from European, Japanese, American and Chinese satellites to do everything from predicting the weather through navigation, to carbon accounting, minerals exploration, stopping terrorists and preventing the spread of quarantine pests," Norman says.

He is a member of the steering committee of the Australian Academy of Sciences Decadal Plan for Australian Space Science. "We depend on our international partners to provide the data which, in some cases, is essential to our national security. That's not a very strong position in an uncertain world." Meanwhile, although Woomera is still used for rocket testing, it has fizzled out since the days when it was central to British and US programs.

Australia still plays a key role in the support of space exploration, however. NASA recently announced plans to install two new dish antennas at the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex at Tidbinbilla. The facility is part of NASA's Deep Space Network, which communicates with space probes. But Australia once hosted several NASA satellite tracking stations, including Orroral, Clark says. Now only two facilities remain, in Alice Springs and Dongara, Western Australia.

Much of Australia's early involvement in space was driven by its geography, with foreign powers needing to site facilities here. Australia's sparse population also made it an attractive site for ground segment operations, Gorman tells the HES. Strategic factors also played a part, she adds, with Australia expecting access to defence technology through joint operations with Britain and, later, the US, she adds. 

When those countries wound back some activities, successive governments did not fill the gap with a strong, independent space program. The Rudd government has introduced programs to build national space capability. Last month it announced about $12 million in grants in the first of four funding rounds of its four-year, $40m Australian Space Research Program. Among projects funded was research led by the University of Queensland that could deliver an air-breathing, hypersonic combustion scramjet engine for use in a satellite launching system.

The Australian Academy of Science estimates it would take an investment in research of $100m for 10 years to rebuild capacity in the civil space sector. The government is on track to meet that target as long as it maintains its present level of funding. Innovation,Industry, Science and Research Minister Kim Carr tells the HES the government will consider future funding levels after evaluating the latest initiatives. He points out the government has also invested $8.6m across four years in a new space policy unit within his department to co-ordinate space activities. "It [space] is not an abstract sideline for people interested in weird and wonderful things," he says. "It's about making sure that this country stays at the cutting edge of technological development."

After drifting without a space program under the Howard government, the scientific community has welcomed the initiatives. But Norman says the investment is low by international standards and the government will have to keep up the momentum. Much rides on private-sector participation, he says.
Australia tried to get back into space in 2002 with the launch of FedSat, a 50kg research satellite designed by the Co-operative Research Centre for Satellite Systems. The $25m project delivered good scientific results and briefly built capacity in space technology. But the CRC closed in 2005. It failed to meet expectations, perhaps unrealistic, that it would propel Australia into satellite design.

FedSat's signal failed in 2007. The microsatellite was carrying a CD with a recording of the Paul Kelly song From Little Things Big Things Grow, the battle cry of the champions of lost causes.

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