Low Impact

The Business of Space Debris

In April, the government said it would establish a space coordination office to oversee a national space effort and to liaise with other agencies. The launch showcased 14 Australian space research projects, funded by a $40 million Federal Government investment to support space-related research, education and innovation activities.

“The space policy coordination unit [promised by mid-2013] will be able to be a go-to point for anyone working in or around or wanting to interact with Australians and playing a role in space policy,” said innovation minister Kate Lundy. It will also aim to develop Australian space expertise, provide funding for the ongoing research into satellite systems, develop infrastructure to meet projected growth in Australian demand for satellite data, and provide input to international space law. There is also a substantial educational component, with the ANU one of six universities in Australia to receive a funding boost for space-related research and teaching.

However, not much of substance has happened since the last such grandiose announcement: the Standing Committee on Economics’ report, ‘Lost in Space? Setting a new direction for Australia’s space science and industry sector’, was released in November 2008. And it does seem a tad disappointing that the response to that report, rather than the latest initiative, is what takes up space on space.gov.au, the federal government’s own website. Lost in space indeed.

In the wider context of innovation, Australia has a rather better track record. Two years ago the Space Policy Unit commissioned a study to assess the relative sophistication, development and effectiveness of Australia as a user of space products and services. This performance was compared to seven comparator nations selected due to their similarities with Australia in economic development, geopolitical heritage, or space investment. The results of the study found that Australia was top in one space application area (Global Navigation Satellite Systems), second in four space application areas (Natural Disaster Management; Earth Observation and Resources Management; Satellite Communications; Weather and Meteorology); and third in Coordination and Integration, which while not in the above matrix, took into account Australia’s overall space usage compared to comparator nations. These individual application area results put Australia second in overall space usage effectiveness relative to its seven peers.

The newly-promised funding for universities is expected to supplement the work already done at the Victorian Space Science Education Centre, one of three Specialist Science Centres established by the Victorian State Government. Fun and interactive, though seemingly short on formal teaching, VSSEC uses the context of space to engage teachers and students in the teaching and learning of science. It is situated in the grounds of Strathmore Secondary College and its spiral-galaxy shaped building, designed by Gregory Burgess Architects, offers a stimulating environment for hands-on learning.

No sooner was the “space policy” made public than the findings from the sixth European Conference on Space Debris were released. What a load of junk, was the main finding – some 30,000 or so bits of old ironmongery clogging the emptiness where satellites and manned or unmanned vehicles should be able to roam in safety. The European Space Agency commented that future space missions must be sustainable and provide for safe disposal when they are completed. “The current levels mean that we must soon begin removing debris from orbit, with research and development urgently needed for pilot ‘cleaning’ missions.”

Satellite operators worldwide, including those flying telecoms, weather, navigation, broadcast and climate-monitoring missions, are now focusing their efforts on controlling space debris, with the aim of avoiding a cascade of self-sustaining collisions from setting in over the next few decades. “There is a wide and strong expert consensus on the pressing need to act now to begin debris removal activities,” said Heiner Klinkrad, head of ESA’s Space Debris Office (which you may safely assume to be untidy). “Our understanding of the growing space debris problem can be compared with our understanding of the need to address Earth’s changing climate some 20 years ago.”

European ideas on how to achieve some sort of clean-up centre on sending up more space vehicles to somehow trap and dispose of the rubbish. But Craig Smith, CEO and technical director for EOS Space Systems, almost immediately countered with a more dramatic proposal: hit the debris with finely tuned lasers to knock them out of their orbit and push them into a safer ‘parking’ orbit out of the way of commercial and defence satellites which are the primary worry for space people who can imagine the chaos that would accompany a collision between (for example) a GPS or telecoms satellite and a long-discarded spent rocket stage.

The replacement cost for close to one thousand active satellites in orbit today is estimated to be around $127 billion, according to the ESA. “The impact on the overall economy of losing these satellites would be several orders of magnitude higher. Society would be severely damaged,” said Klinkrad. “While measures against further debris creation and actively de-orbiting defunct satellites are technically demanding and potentially costly, there is no alternative to protect space as a valuable resource for our critical satellite infrastructure. Their direct costs and the costs of losing them will by far exceed the cost of remedial activities.”

EOS Space Systems (which also has bases in Germany and the US and a strategic agreement with some big US defence companies) is based at the ACT’s Mount Stromlo, where it has a Satellite Laser Ranging Observatory. EOS specialises in space information based on the use of EOS-developed instruments and sensors to detect, track, classify and characterise objects in space. This information is required for both military and commercial space applications. To support its space business, EOS develops and produces a wide range of space-related infrastructure in the form of sub-systems, such as telescopes and beam directors.

Smith told the media that EOS’ laser concept, photon pressure nudging – the company can focus beams to an unusually high degree of precision even over thousands of kilometres – would be “more practical, cost-effective and timely” than the European ideas. Using the lasers to ‘zap’ debris or chop it up would not work – just creating a larger number of smaller items to avoid. But effectively pushing them into a celestial parking bay would at least stop collisions from happening in a “more subtle and cost-effective” manner.

Of course it does not actually solve the problem, but it would achieve a similar result almost instantly and at very low cost (the energy levels required are actually very small). “If we can make the photon pressure nudging work, then you actually don’t need to de-orbit stuff because you can actually stop the collisions from happening,” Smith told the media in April.

Making Sense of Management

Management is the art, or science, of getting things done through people. Sounds fairly straightforward – except for the fact that people are not robots waiting to do our bidding. People have their own minds, motivations, and goals. So how do managers keep operations – and the people behind them – running as planned?

June 19, 2018, 10:43 AM AEST