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Australia’s space economy gains new talent

Yee Wei Law teaches cryptography and data protection and telecommunications. And device security and electronic and mechatronic engineering.

But rather than write endless academic research papers on attack-resilient satellites, for example, the network security expert decided to launch a start-up to help Australia develop a sovereign capability.

“Why not?” he says.

“Doing the same thing over and over is perhaps not how researchers should think, so I put forward my idea for building secure communications software solutions for satellite constellations.”

Named Mesh in Space, Dr Law’s spin-off from his work at the University of South Australia has been selected as part of a space program luring human capital to the state called Venture Catalyst.

Set up in Australia’s traditional defence industry heartland, the aim is to incubate what could prove to be vital future technology as thousands of low-Earth orbit satellites take to the skies.

Satellites per se have been around for decades but multiplying constellations of these smaller versions are relatively new.

Billionaire Elon Musk’s rocket company SpaceX has launched more than 2000 Starlink satellites and he wants his global footprint to include Australia’s vast expanse.

London-based OneWeb is also building a space-based global communications network.

In agriculture, new satellite constellations are being developed for monitoring crops, climate change and weather patterns, while mining is ripe for deep data sets to more effectively assess Australia’s immense hidden riches.

Ocean intelligence also has much to gain from space technology.

Physicist Ian Dewey at ESpy Ocean is looking skyward after starting out 20 years ago with remote sensing and image analysis as a submarine hunter.

Personal contacts have a lot to do with the venture.

“I was the teacher many years ago for someone who’s now a senior captain for Sea Shepherd,” he explains.

“He was working on the Gabon program trying to stop poachers.”

Sea Shepherd and the Bob Barker, a vessel familiar to Australians for its anti-whaling work in Antarctic waters, has been working with the Gabonese government to tackle illegal fishing in central West Africa.

“He said, ‘Ian, is there some way we can see where they are before we spend endless hours looking for them?’

“And I said, ‘Of course there is, I can solve that problem.'”

After sharing data and testing solutions, ESpy is now tapping into the space program to develop its business idea with Fisheries NSW.

“Yes, they want to stop the idiot who just goes out to get 200 abalone and deplete a local stock,” Mr Dewey says.

“But also they want to stop the international pirate who comes in and not only takes everything but destroys the environment in the process.”

Mr Dewey’s interest lies in using hyperspectral imaging to analyse a large area and track specific objects.

“That it can be used in an environmental situation is an absolute positive,” he says.

Globally, aerospace and defence firms like Lockheed Martin are working on space tech and the United States plans to have a mesh network in low-Earth orbit this year.

But each company is using its own proprietary technology, which is totally opaque to us, Dr Law says.

Meanwhile, South Australia is now home to the Australian Space Agency that will support the so called space economy.

UniSA’s Innovation and Collaboration Centre, host to the Venture Catalyst program, is working with the CSIRO, research organisations, industry bodies and international privateers.

Dr Law says the resource-intensive sector needs to collaborate on common endeavours, including missions to the Moon and Mars that Australia wants to play a role in.

“One country can only deploy a limited number of satellites,” he says.

“Hence the idea of creating a network protocol stack that allows satellites from different organisations to talk to each other, and they would talk in such a way that they form a mesh in space.”

A mesh means one satellite having multiple communication links with any satellite it can contact, Dr Law says.

If a satellite has 100km of communications reach, all the satellites within that range can talk to that particular satellite and form a mesh.

“From a security or reliability perspective, the mesh technology is best because if one link fails then all the other links can carry traffic and information,” Dr Law says.

“The civil development and the defence development go hand in hand.”

Satellites need to be deployed to detect hypersonic movement and send real-time data and images, with constellations able to monitor the entire sky, he says.

Russia recently tested hypersonic, intercontinental and short-range ballistic missiles over invasion target Ukraine, and defence satellites are able to detect activity from the Black Sea to the Arctic.

Australia and its allies also keep watch on missiles tested by China, North Korea and Iran.

Because these missiles travel so fast they can quickly move out of the range of one satellite but a mesh can alert all the other satellites within range.

And if the hypersonic missile has jamming capabilities then the satellite will have to have multiple communication beams – optical and radio links, Dr Law says.

While most space technology lies with private offshore companies and will be tightly held, Australia’s critical blueprint identifies numerous space technologies as being in the national interest.

These include advanced optical and radiofrequency communications, satellite positioning and navigation, advanced robotics, autonomous operations systems, space launch networks and small satellites for Earth observation and wide area communications.

Australia aims to grow the space sector by 20,000 jobs and up to $12 billion by 2030, with all eyes on South Australia as the nation’s traditional defence industry hub.

According to Premier Stephen Marshall, the state is “a magnet for space start-ups” with its collaborative ecosystem and programs like Venture Catalyst.

Further west, Perth-based QL Space is looking at how space-based technology can help miners but considering moving its headquarters to Adelaide.

Operations manager Rajen Biswa says the satellite network and supply chain he has in mind would identify rare earth elements and critical minerals.

A Synthetic Aperture Radar platform would use multi-spectrum images, sensors to give a deep earth exploration capability and other earth observation, historical and geological information to create a rich data set that can be interpreted by artificial intelligence.

“The bulk of our team is in Australia and we have a few teams working from India too,” Mr Biswa says.

“Besides the huge potential for space companies in Australia, the massive support for space innovations in governmental and other sectors is a big incentive.”

“The space economy in Australia is accelerating at a very fast pace.”

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