Building micro-satellites for the future

5 August 2020

Head of the ANU Space Plasma, Power and Propulsion Laboratory, Professor Christine Charles, works across a variety of subject areas that intersect with her interest in satellites. These areas include plasma, electrical discharges, aerospace engineering and propulsion.

Christine, can you tell us what this laboratory does and how you use satellites to help inform your research?

Satellites stand between us on earth and the Cosmos where we came from. Our research on the basic physics of plasmas helps us understand the building blocks of the cosmos and our place in it. Applications of plasma physics gives us the tools to fabricate the microelectronics that control the satellites and allow us to probe the cosmos and send this information back to earth. Our electric propulsion systems can be used to steer satellites in orbit and those that have broken free of the earth's gravity and head into deep space.

Most people understand satellites to be devices that monitor our earth's surface. What are satellites used for, in your field of expertise?

Satellites are used to probe the earth and the cosmos; we use the data they sent back to earth to help understand the genesis of the solar wind that streams from the sun, past the earth and out into deep space. 

What are the benefits of using satellites, for your research? How do they compare with using other forms of data collection from the ground?

From the window of your house you can use a telescope to see the stars, but nothing beats opening the door and stepping out into the cosmos to wholly experience what it is like and what is really happening.

What has been one discovery you've made in your research thanks to the use of satellites?

Late one night in the laboratory, I discovered a fascinating phenomenon and realised it could be used as a motor to propel satellites through space. Many people around the world are now involved, some on the basic physics and some on applying the discovery to make space safer by removing rubbish left behind by earlier spacecraft.

What are you currently working on when it comes to research with satellites?

With our students we are developing new fuel and propulsion systems to allow even small groups and companies to design and build micro-satellites: we believe that space should be open to all!

What does the future look like for satellite research?

Satellites are the future, they allow us to see further and more clearly than ever before. We are entering a new age of space opening up for everyone not just governments of large countries. Many new companies around the world are successfully building their own rockets and satellites and all this has been made possible by the internet and micro-electronics. The peoples of the world are coming closer together and satellite communications across all our endeavours is the web that binds us