Eyes in the skies: using satellites to benefit society

20 August 2020

Imagine being a farmer who doesn't have to worry about fixing up that broken fence to keep your cows in their paddock, or being able to pinpoint a person or object to within centimetres of their location on Earth. According to the Director of the ANU Institute for Space, Anna Moore, this is what we can expect to see with satellite technology in the not-too-distant future.

Professor Moore, who is also the Director of the Advanced Instrumentation and Technology Centre at the Research School of Astronomy & Astrophysics at Mount Stromlo Observatory, is at the forefront of seeing many new space-related projects that are designed to improve our way of living here on Earth.

Professor Moore says with the work InSpace is doing at ANU, experts from disciplines are meeting for the first time and collaborating on concepts that have never been developed before.

"We're seeing amazing opportunities come out when you take an Earth observer who's never built a satellite in their lives but uses satellite data... you team them with an astronomy group for example who knows nothing about bushfires... you're getting something which is a national-level initiative."

Most people know satellites are integral for uses such as global positioning systems (or GPS) in cars, but Professor Moore says Australia is stepping up in this area so that it has the most accurate national grid of position data.

"We're talking about being able to know the position of a person or an animal or a car at a level where it genuinely is a matter between life and death," she says, "a car crash or not a car crash, or virtual fencing, so you know where all your cows are."

"You're seeing something that's a pretty ordinary piece of hardware going up into space, but the reality of the knock-on effect of what that can do for Australia, is really paradigm-changing."

At their basest form, satellites are integral to knowing our position on Earth, Professor Moore says. This is where Australia is heading with some of its satellite research - to come up with the most accurate national grid of GPS data.

"You can get to within three centimetres rather than within a few metres. Vehicle automation becomes possible with that.

"It's a jump that's enough to open up a whole different world of things on the ground, not just there in space."

Professor Moore is an astronomer who uses infrared techniques to observe wavelengths that pass through the atmosphere.

"I'm looking for things that go bump in the night," she says.

"I'm looking for things that either go out of existence, or come into existence or they're varying. Because they're behind the death plains of our galaxies, you can't see them with visual wavelengths like our eye responds to.

"So you have to be able to peer through that dust, you need to be able to use longer wavelengths to do it, so that's when the infrared comes in."

She uses telescopes to constantly scan the sky from the ground to observe any changes that appear. Satellites may then be used to do more in-depth analysis.

Professor Moore says she was part of a team that used the Spitzer telescope as a pathfinder to detect new star-forming galaxies with lots of stellar activity.

"The telescope continuously looked at these galaxies, going back and going back, to see if it could see something new," she says.

All of a sudden, her team discovered a series of transient objects - things that weren't previously detected in the sky.

"And it kind of started the global search into infrared transient astronomy which I now lead for Australia. So that was really good because it was quite significant and it spawned new facilities in Australia to follow up this discovery."

Professor Moore says infrared technology is being developed for all sorts of research, including detecting bushfire risk, and a new infrared sensor is being developed that will go to the International Space Station.

"We're also designing with DLR - the German Space Agency. InSpace is working with them in the area of quantum communication. We've finished a concurrent design for a mission where we take ANU technology which is really genuine global technology. It's at the cutting edge of what's being done right now, and this is all about transmitting secure signals at very high bandwidth using lasers which is the next generation of communication.

With the costs of launching satellites coming down and an increased interest in using the technology for research here on Earth, Professor Moore says it's inevitable that the regulation needs to be tightened around their use and the potential for them to be left in orbit around the Earth as abandoned space objects.

"ANU is getting ahead of the game in what it does, making sure it has a multidisciplinary approach to the Centre for Space Situational Awareness Research (CeSSAR). It covers technology, measurement and the regulations in the College of Law. So it's a genuinely multidisciplinary centre which is really important for this particular area."