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SKA precursor helps track objects in Australian skies

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Case study from: Co-hosting the Square Kilometre Array

What do breakfast radio, space junk and the SKA have in common? They’re all part of a new, ingeniously simple technique to monitor and protect valuable assets in space.

Astronomers at the Curtin University node of the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR) are partnering with Adelaide company, Silentium Defence to harness one of Australia’s two SKA precursor telescopes, the Murchison Widefield Array (MWA). The MWA will be used to detect and track satellites and space junk orbiting the earth, helping to evaluate the risk of collisions.

While looking for faint radio waves from the cosmos, the super-sensitive radio telescope will also detect terrestrial radio waves, like those transmitted by FM radio stations, as they bounce off objects in Earth’s orbit. This effectively makes MWA a passive radar system tracking reflected radio waves from existing sources rather than emitting its own high-power radio transmissions as military and commercial radars do.

In this way, MWA can track objects as far as 1000km away and travelling at incredible speeds—ideal for monitoring valuable and strategic assets in space.

‘In low-Earth orbit, the typical speed of objects is about 8 kilometres a second, so even something weighing 100 grams, centimetres in size, at that speed could destroy a billion-dollar communications satellite without much trouble,’ Curtin University’s John Curtin Distinguished Professor Steven Tingay said.

This novel research-industry partnership has recently secured an Australian Government Defence Innovation Hub contract to develop new situational awareness capabilities for Defence.

Watch the video of the MWA telescope detecting FM radio bouncing off space junk on the ICRAR website.

Silentium Defence well placed to succeed in Australia’s burgeoning space industry

Silentium Defence is an Australian-owned and based SME which spun out of the Defence Science and Technology Group (DST Group) in 2017. Experts in passive radar techniques, they employ expert engineers, project managers and support staff, and have ambitions to become a global leader exporting high technology products.

‘We are living proof that investment in research-to-industry collaboration and deep-tech commercialisation works,’ Silentium Defence CEO Dr James Palmer said.

Prof. Tingay, who still works closely with DST Group, notes that Silentium Defence’s emergence is a ‘great example of multi-sector, multi-agency, and academic-industry collaboration’, but highlights that ‘translational research between academia and industry takes time and persistence’.

With the establishment of the Australian Space Agency and efforts to position Australia as a player in the global space industry, Silentium Defence is well placed for future commercial success.

Astrophysical knowledge proves useful for practical domains

ICRAR is a joint venture between Curtin University and The University of Western Australia, supported with funding from the West Australian state government. One of ICRAR’s goals is to translate fundamental astrophysical knowledge into practical domains—and the current partnership with SIlentium Defence does just that.

Linking with private sector companies is one way in which radio astronomers like Prof. Tingay are able to bridge the gap between ‘blue sky’ astronomical research and commercial applications.

‘Translating from astrophysics and radio astronomy into other areas that are more commercially relevant and more socially relevant is really important. The SKA’s great, astrophysics is great, but we also have a high degree of relevance in much more real-world areas of activity,’ he said.

MWA’s spin-off success spells good news for the SKA

WiFi is possibly the most famous spin-off benefit produced as a result of radio astronomy research, a technology that is now used worldwide in homes, businesses and industry.

So, can we expect the same sort of benefits from the SKA?

‘Absolutely,’ Prof. Tingay affirmed.

‘The MWA is a very flexible instrument that allows for novel use. The passive radar capability is one of a number with commercial potential,’ Prof. Tingay said in relation to its capacity for non-astronomy applications.

‘With respect to passive radar for Space Situational Awareness, the SKA will be approximately 50 times more powerful than the MWA. This will allow the SKA to potentially detect and track more objects of smaller size to considerably larger distances.’

Professor Tingay believes the novel uses of radio astronomy are an often overlooked benefit of investment in the field.

‘If the development of these capabilities is properly supported, in collaboration with industry partners, the MWA may be able to generate revenue from commercial activities that benefit the nation, diversifying the MWA operations revenue streams, and generating new jobs outside astronomy,’ he said.

‘Even capturing a very small fraction of the global Space Situational Awareness economy would pay for the MWA many times over.’

The other Australian SKA precursor, the Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder (ASKAP), is also showing promise of delivering non-astronomy benefits. CSIRO believes its innovative ‘phased array feed’ receivers have an untapped potential for usage in geophysics and the medical field.

It’s not just the stars that look bright for radio astronomers. With the potential benefits of the SKA yet to even be imagined, the future does too. 

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