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Making a Case for Space: The Small Satellite Value Proposition

Whether it realises it or not, the modern world relies on space-based technology for a range of vital applications, not limited to science, communications and navigation.  Our major allies, following considerable investment in military space systems, are Australia’s indispensable enablers for coordination, targeting, intelligence and weather monitoring.  Unfortunately, open sources indicate that other space-capable nations may have developed counter-measures to these space capabilities in every orbit category.[1]

These rapidly developing counter-measures include anti-satellite missiles, lasers, and ‘cyber effects’ or ‘hunter-killer satellites’, designed specifically to destroy or disrupt other satellites.  Killer satellites may deploy an explosive charge or deliberately collide, kamikaze-style, with an allied satellite.[2]   They may employ a robotic arm to capture a targeted satellite, before firing thrusters and deorbiting their prey - causing it to incinerate upon re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere. Our allies are currently exploring options to protect space assets, but with so many satellites already in orbit, combined with long replacement lead times, extant space capability the ADF relies upon may become increasingly vulnerable.

So what to do? Enter small satellites (smallsat) - also categorised as cubesats or nanosats.[3]  These devices are the size of a household refrigerator, or as small as a rubic cube.  Nanosats, on average, are the size of a shoe box.  The benefits of smallsats are profound: they can be constructed cheaply from commercial off-the-shelf components, and are also low mass, which means lower orbital insertion costs utilising commercial launch services.  Smallsats are harder to detect and target, due to smaller radar cross sections; while traditional satellites are as large as a small bus or car, with an abundance of reflective surfaces, including prominent thermal and electromagnetic signatures.  Lastly, a lower cost profile allows more smallsats to be deployed at a reasonable cost, permitting constellations that can be actively reconfigured for persistent surface coverage and complementary effects.

How does the ADF develop its own affordable smallsat capability?  Beginning with a VCDF Group Joint Capability Narrative is logical.  But a strategic statement of capability need will benefit from studies into smallsat technical feasibility for operational applications, including development of a space system specification.  This study will require analysis of commercial launch services given space access costs have been decreasing due to escalating innovation (e.g. re-useable first stage rocket boosters). This game changing capability was successfully tested last year by US companies SpaceX on their Falcon 9 rocket[4] and Blue Origin with the New Shepard rocket.[5]  Previously, rockets were expendable, akin to building then flying a Boeing 737 airliner on only one flight.  So this disruptive technology enabling multiple launches with the same rocket sent shock waves through the space industry and stimulated launch services market competition.[6] There are also small launch vehicles being developed by Rocket Lab for smallsat markets.[7] So amid decreasing costs, the time could be right for the ADF to establish an indigenous space program. 

Another option is to assess whether conducting smallsat launches to space from Australia is sensible.  Satellite insertion to low Earth orbit has already been achieved from Australia in 1971, at Woomera Range via a Black Arrow rocket.[8] So it’s plausible that Australian satellite launches could be achieved again.  Particularly given Australian based launches are optimal due to Australia’s equatorial proximity. This provides dividends, given equator proximal launches require less rocket energy to reach escape velocity, as Earth has higher rotational speed at the equator.[9]  So this geographic advantage translates into the potential for a more affordable launch process. Also in terms of ground station to space system communication and control links, several ground installations already exist in the ACT, SA and WA.  Therefore the existing ground station and radar networks might be leveraged to facilitate smallsat telemetry links and launch vehicle control functions.

An instinctive view might dismiss the concept of an ADF smallsat capability and orbital launch system as too costly and risky, but when considering that SpaceX was founded with a relatively small investment of USD $100m by one determined entrepreneur, it’s worth investigating.[10]  Within the context of Government focused support to Australian defence industry, there will be substantial benefits to technology sector employment, export markets and the broader economy from an emerging ADF space capability. This will provide Australia with international credibility in space technology and the opportunity to generate space operations self-reliance.

Promising work is already underway, to advance a domestic space program via the University of New South Wales,[11] and space industry accelerator Delta-V[12] in NSW, including start-up space companies like Gilmour Space Technologies[13] in QLD. There is also a groundswell of companies positioning to exploit space opportunities in SA[14] and a Space White Paper was recently released.[15] So while new space investment is outlined in the 2016 Defence Integrated Investment Program,[16] perhaps consideration could be given to a pioneering ADF smallsat and small launch vehicle project?

By: LTCOL Greg Rowlands

Twitter: @glrowlands1

About the Author:

LTCOL Greg Rowlands is an infantry officer with 25 years of service. He is currently employed as a Project Director in LAND 400 CASG.

He is a graduate of Australian Command & Staff College and the Capability & Technology Management College.

LTCOL Rowlands has also completed an undergraduate degree and three masters degrees from the University of New England, University of Canberra and University of New South Wales.

LTCOL Rowlands has an interest in space systems technology and astronomy.

The views expressed in this article and subsequent comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government. Further information.

[7] : Electron Rockets are 17m in height – quarter that of a 70m Falcon 9.

[10] A. Vance, 2015, Elon Musk: How the Billionaire CEO of SpaceX and Tesla is Shaping Our Future, Virgin Books, pg 116.

Army: Courage. Initiative. Respect. Teamwork.
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