In April of this year Western Sydney University (WSU), led by their International Centre for Neuromorphic Systems (ICNS) won the largest ever contract from the Defence Innovation Hub (DIH), specifically to build a camera inspired by the human eye for the task of looking at space. That includes space situational awareness, and for tracking satellites and space junk.
I recently sat down at WSU with Professor André van Schaik, director of ICNS to learn more. He explained that current space monitoring technology is based on radar and optical telescopes in observatories. But radar technology is expensive to install and maintain and it is an active technology. In other words, when you use radar, everyone knows you’re looking. And standard astronomy cameras don’t work during the day because they’re made to be very sensitive to light. This led to the development of Astrosite, a world-first mobile space situational awareness module, developed with RAAF’s Plan Jericho.
Inspired by Human Biology
In world first technology, using biologically inspired event-based cameras (sensors), WSU is able to capture what no other system can; that is events from each pixel to provide a stream of events through time, rather than images. ‘Event’-based means that each photoreceptor, each pixel in the camera, independently looks for changes. If the light changes over time to become brighter by a certain amount or darker by a certain amount, it will send an event identifying whether it was a brighter or darker change. And what this means is that each event is a precisely timestamped piece of information.
The amount of space junk around Earth is significant and growing. This junk only increased when two countries recently blew up their own satellites to test their missiles, creating clouds of debris pollution whizzing around. Even a tiny 10cm square piece of debris travelling at 28,000km an hour can completely destroy multi-billion-dollar satellites. What does this mean to you? We rely on satellites for GPS navigation, weather, entertainment and communications, and of course intelligence gathering. Tracking this junk is therefore crucial, and valuable.
It is estimated that over 60 countries have plans and the capacity to launch into space in the near future. Every launch requires knowledge of what is in the space (area) their satellite will fly into and occupy, lest it is destroyed by space junk. WSU’s systems provide that capability efficiently, with incredible accuracy and at a lower cost than current technologies. And this is by no means the only capabilities WSU’s technologies can and will provide. More of that in future articles and below, but it is fair to say that the economic growth and highly skilled jobs resulting from developments like these will launch Western Sydney, NSW, and Australia into the global club of space nations.
Cat & Mouse in the Heavens
Spy satellites are constantly moving around in orbit to collect intelligence, attack, hide and bully. There are reportedly many examples of competitor satellites not just hiding themselves, but also attacking or being moved directly into the path of or near other (most often commercial) satellites and forcing them to move, which is time consuming, disruptive and expensive.
Adversaries could (and still can) do all of the above because they know when and where current technology can “see” into which parts of space and at what times. That’s mostly during the night and from fixed observatories. Therefore, they know which areas of space to avoid if they don’t want to be seen.
No longer. Astrosite is a mobile module that operates day and night, is passive, and can even operate on moving platforms (like a ship) or from space itself. In fact, Prof van Schaik states that Astrosite works better from a moving platform.
Now adversaries have no idea where you’re looking from or when. And they can’t just pop up into an area of space unannounced.
Note: This article was published by Australian Defence Magazine online and in hard copy in ‘ADM’s Defence Week Premium Edition’. Lincoln Parker works for the NSW Defence Innovation Network (an initiative of the NSW Government, Defence Science & Technology Group and seven NSW universities). The author’s views are his own.