There are hopes new technology attained by the Australian National University (ANU) will put Australia ahead of the curve when it comes to space communications — even ahead of NASA.
- A new station with capabilities to communicate with spacecraft via lasers is announced in Canberra
- NASA is yet to adopt the technology, but it is expected to be a major step for space communications
- Canberra is tipped to play a part in future Moon missions and Mars exploration
The university will soon be responsible for a quantum optical ground station — effectively a sophisticated transmitter that sends data to space with lasers, rather than the traditional radio waves.
The technology is still emerging, but the station would allow much more information to flow between spacecraft and Earth — potentially assisting missions to put humans on the Moon, and on Mars.
The station, which will be at Mount Stromlo in Canberra’s west, is the latest in a string of the region’s contributions to new frontiers in space.
Honeysuckle Creek Tracking Station, a short drive from Canberra, was the fist point of contact on the planet for vision of the moon landing.
Francis Bennet, who will lead the project for the ANU, said currently only a small amount of information could be sent between the Earth and spacecraft.
“At the moment a lot of instruments around Earth in orbit, they have to process everything they collect on board, and then transmit back a fraction of that data,” Dr Bennet said.
“Who knows what happens with all that data that we have to delete just because we don’t have the ability to transmit it.
“This will really put Australia at the forefront of what could be the next space race in terms of data communication.”
Dr Francis Bennet (right) said a lot of data collected in space is deleted without analysis. (ABC News: Greg Nelson)
Quantum optical communications technology is considered a major step forward in space communications, but is yet to be fully adopted by NASA.
Dr Bennet said a long-term goal was to create a network of similar stations across Australia and New Zealand, which could then assist missions launched from around the world.
Canberra expected to play a role in moon missions
The new station was funded jointly by the ANU, the CSIRO and the ACT Government, and while a final site at the Mount Stromlo Observatory is yet to be selected, the university plans to begin construction soon.
The CSIRO’s Ed Kruzins, who works on the organisation’s NASA operations, said the fact Australia was embracing the technology meant it was well placed to assist in future missions.
“The missions to the moon under the lunar gateway activities will come to the ACT anyway through Tidbinbilla and the Deep Space Network,” he said.
“That will happen when men and women go back to the Moon.
“Whether it turns into being an optical communications connection is likely, and Australia will be very well placed, particularly the ACT will be well placed in supporting that optical communications backbone.”
The ACT’s Space Industries Minister Mick Gentleman said the investment could encourage NASA to adopt the technology.
“It’s a great opportunity for the ACT to still be at the forefront of space communications, we have a long history of course in space communications in the ACT,” he said.
“We’re hoping that it’ll nudge NASA a little bit to ensure that they can move into this communication space as well.”