A new antenna in Tasmania’s southern midlands is enabling communications and commands to be sent to satellites orbiting earth — the first time Australia has had this capability.
- The number of satellites orbiting earth has grown from 2,000 in 2017 to more than 5,000
- Tasmania is regarded as an ideal location for monitoring the growing satellite traffic orbiting the earth
- A new antenna near Hobart will allow authorities to transmit commands to satellites, as well as receive messages from orbit
The two-way communication means satellites can have their orbits changed to avoid collisions, can be directed to make specific observations, and ground support can be provided for space missions.
The $2 million antenna has started operating at a time when Australia is significantly increasing its space industries, including plans to use the Arnhem Space Center in the remote Northern Territory to send rockets into space.
Canberra-based Skykraft has hitched a ride on a SpaceX rocket to launch a project aimed at improving Australia’s air traffic management, with an ambition for 200 satellites launched in two years.
The antenna at Bisdee Tier in Tasmania will mean Australia will no longer need to rely on other countries — mostly in western Europe — to send commands to satellites on its behalf.
Professor Simon Ellingsen of the University of Tasmania said it would improve Australia’s space radar capabilities.
“Before we were just able to receive signals from space with some of our other antennas. This one gives us the chance to transmit up, and also to do some work in finding out where objects are in space with the space situational awareness,” he said.
“Australia is starting to launch a lot more satellites. And because of companies like SpaceX being able to launch more cheaply, there’s satellites being launched for both scientific and commercial purposes.”
‘Orbiting satellites, old rocket bodies’ up above
The number of active satellites orbiting earth sits at about 5,000 — up from 2,000 in 2017.
Given most have polar orbits, they are more commonly seen closer to the poles. This means Tasmania is an ideal location for tracking.
At any given time, it’s estimated there are 2,000 satellites in the sky above Tasmania.
While collisions between satellites are unlikely, the new antenna will further reduce the risk by having the ability to track other objects in orbit with greater accuracy.
One collision can create a cascading effect, causing a debris cloud around the earth and making space travel more difficult.
Head of the Australian Space Agency, Enrico Palermo, said the antenna would open up new potential for the country’s space sector.
“This… deepens our experience in tracking satellites, communicating with satellites. It’s going to develop new commercial partnerships where Australian companies and international companies can use this site to track their satellites,” he said.
“There’s orbiting satellites, there’s old rocket bodies — we want to make sure they don’t impact each other because if they impact each other and cause damage that could impact the vital services we rely on everyday.
“Globally there’s predictions the space sector will grow to over a trillion dollars in the decades to come, and Australia’s in a really interesting position to capture a significant share of that because of our talent, because of our geography and really the Australian ingenuity like Skykraft and the University of Tasmania.”
Mr Palermo said the “commercialisation of space” had, at this stage, resulted in more cooperation between countries.
“We’ve shifted from what used to be the preserve of the world’s major superpowers, to commercial entities like SpaceX, providing access to space, developing services that benefit humans around the planet,” he said.
“Certainly space is a competitive field, and it has aspects related to national security.”