Reusable satellites will give Australia an advantage

5 Oct 2017

This article first appeared on The Australian Business Review.

The key to Australia’s superiority in space could lie with reusable satellites and scramjets, according to University of Queensland ­researcher professor Michael Smart, who says new jobs could be created if we capitalise on this outer space opportunity.

Professor Smart and his team have spent years working on the SPARTAN reusable satellite system, a method for launching small satellites he says makes far more sense than the status quo for launching small satellites. Currently, most use a ride-share ­service that piggybacks on to a larger customer, which he says is expensive and gives no control to the smaller satellite customer.

The air-breathing scramjet called SPARTAN, developed by UQ, is inherently reusable and Professor Smart says its high lift-to-drag ratio enables it to return to base for the next launch. He says it’s like a normal jet engine, but ­operates at hypersonic speeds.

“We would like to launch small satellites — for a business — from Australia,” Professor Smart said. “Historically we’ve never really had any space launch industry, not since the 1960s. This is an ­opportunity for Australia to get into launching satellites, and take advantage of this revolution going on right now.”

According to Professor Smart (pictured below), who is presenting this week at the International Astronautical Congress in Adelaide, while most communications satellites in orbit weigh about a tonne, due to advances in electronics many satellites being built now weight only about 50kg. “That means you need a much smaller system to put them into orbit, and it’s one that could be developed in Australia,” he said. “We’ll never develop a massive shuttle with astronauts and all of that, we’re just too small a country. However, we could ­develop a system using small ­satellites, and create jobs.”

Prof Michael Smart at The University of Queensland

The researcher said the biggest benefit of using scramjets was that small satellites would be launched with a plane that could be reused, as opposed to rockets which get thrown away. “Rockets are totally expendable; it’s like taking your Porsche to the beach then throwing away the keys,” he said. “It’s ­totally crazy. And that’s the reason space launches are so expensive. So what we want to do is make going to space more like a plane flight, it’s so much cheaper and just makes a hell of a lot more sense.”

Australia this week announced it would create its own space agency, and Professor Smart said he hopes the agency focuses on commercialising our knowledge, which was one of our strengths. “What I hope the agency does is look around Australia at where we have competitive advantage over other countries, and supports them,” he said. “Not investing completely, but just helping to move the technology along. In the US they have a great system of private and public partnerships, and if our agency did that I think that would be best possible outcome.

“Our agency will not be a NASA. We want it to help bring on Australian technology with great hi-tech jobs for young people.”

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