When a SpaceX rocket departs the famed Cape Canaveral bound for the International Space Station in August, it will mark one giant leap forward for WA’s fledgling space program.
But it could eventually be the start of an even more gigantic stride for future missions to the Moon and beyond.
On board will be a WA-designed and built Binar spacecraft which, if all goes to plan after being released from the space station, will form part of Australia’s first homegrown constellation of satellites in space.
Such a constellation would give WA industries, including the mining and resources sector, access to highly functional space communications technology that might otherwise be out of reach.
“There are whole range of ways homegrown space capacity could help WA industry,” Curtin University Space Science and Technology Centre (SSTC) Director Phil Bland explained.
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“Whether that’s helping with communications, assisting the operation of assets on the ground including autonomous systems or making observations about the earth, such as identifying mineral deposits.”
But if the Binar program grows as Bland hopes it might, the opportunities may be even more spectacular.
Although it’s widely known that NASA has its eye on manned missions to Mars next decade, it’s perhaps lesser understood how the Moon could provide a literal launching pad towards that.
“NASA has said they will give us a free ride to Moon if we can help them find water there – so my dream would be to have a full-on WA space probe at the Moon four to five years down the track” Bland said.
“NASA’s entire program of lunar exploration depends on mining ice at the poles [of the Moon]. If you can get ice from the South Pole of the Moon, you can then crack that and get hydrogen and oxygen – which is effectively rocket fuel.
“The problem is that the place you are trying to mine is in dark craters on the Moon, which is possibly the worst possible environment in the solar system. If you want to pick a horrible place to be it’s in one of those craters – permanent darkness and about 30 Kelvin [-243 celsius]
“But the craters could be extremely important. One of the biggest issues with trying to get to other parts of the solar system direct from Earth is how powerful gravity is here.
“If you were to take off from Moon, where there is much less gravity, it becomes much easier.
“Basically, if you can make rocket fuel on the Moon, you can use it like a petrol station to get you to other places. Our goal is to help NASA find accessible water on the Moon.”
The Moon may eventually be the destination for Binar technology but in their earliest iteration the cube satellites will operate between the 408km altitude of the space station and about 1000km from Earth.
The Binar craft have not only entirely been designed and constructed in WA by Curtin staff and students but their name also has a uniquely Western Australian flavour – Binar being the Noongar word for fireball.
That said, development of the Binar spacecraft and their launch will reflect a truly international approach. In addition to the involvement of the SSTC, the WA Government’s Department of Jobs, Tourism, Science and Innovation, and Australian Remote Operations for Space and Earth (AROSE), there have been contributions from NASA, the European Space Agency, Dutch geodata specialist Fugro, and Space BD, a Japanese start-up which facilitate the launch from the space station.
The product of that collaboration will be scalable cubesats, starting at a size of 10cm by 10cm, which will be affordable enough – perhaps less than $10 million for a constellation of multiple spacecraft – to make them accessible to Australian industry.
Bland’s career journey from growing up in coal mining country in Derbyshire in the UK, to being the first person on either side his family to attend university and now heading up a space operation in Australia, speaks volumes to the opportunities offered by planetary sciences.
“I loved metamorphic and structural geology – mountain building and those sorts of things and after studying [geology] at the University of Manchester I was all set to do a PhD in that,” he explained.
“But I also had done an internship at the Natural History Museum of London, looking at meteorites. I had been studying in Manchester at a time when Manchester was the place in the world to be for bands – in the late 1980s and early 1990s – and because of that I’d spent a lot of money that I didn’t have and needed to get a job.
“And it just so happened that there was a job at the Open University for a meteorite curator. The bank didn’t want me to do a PhD and I had that little bit of experience in meteorites from Natural History and so I ended up with a job as a meteorite curator.
“I got very interested in what meteorites could tell us about the origins of the solar system. I loved it and I’ve never looked back.”
Bland would eventually complete a part-time PhD focussed on meteorites at Open University and then spend a decade at Imperial College.
By 2012, sick of London life, he was looking for a new challenge, and having already collaborated with Curtin scientists from afar, WA seemed an inviting option.
He initially joined Curtin on a five-year Australian Research Council Laureate and soon carved out a niche with the highly successful Desert Fireball Network, a project he’d conceptualised in London that tracked meteorites entering the atmosphere and then traced them to their points of origin (it also spawned a popular citizen science spin-off, Fireballs In The Sky).
Bland now hopes the Binar program will help shine an even brighter spotlight on WA’s scientific and space capabilities.
“I was a really proud Western Australian anyway – but with COVID, I feel even more proud,” Bland said.
“The way everyone has approached that and the way government has led that, it’s felt like a real team and community approach that has just blown me away.
“I want to see us as a State develop a thriving space sector. Doing projects that get global attention. I want to be part of that inspirational effort. We’re in an incredible part of Australia and the world and I just want to put that up in lights.”
If working in mining and resources is something that interests you, check out jobsinresources.com.au to see hundreds of jobs available in the sector.