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Australia could launch own satellites by 2023, helping monitoring fire risk

by Andrew Brown, Canberra (Australia) Times |

Australia could launch its own satellites into space as soon as 2023, when they have the potential to be used for predicting parts of the country more at risk from bushfires.

A feasibility study, to be published on Monday, carried out for federal government science agencies by UNSW Canberra Space, showed Australia's space industry would be able to support an Earth observation satellite program.

The Australian satellites would be able to correlate images and data from other large observation satellites launched by larger international space agencies.

The observational monitoring could be used to track which parts of the country were becoming more at risk of bushfires or floods, or potentially track the conditions of the Great Barrier Reef, among other uses.

It's hoped the satellite program would reduce Australia's reliance on foreign satellites and data-sharing arrangements, as well as support Earth observation missions and land imaging programs.

UNSW Canberra Space director Russell Boyce said the combining of information and images from other satellites would help form a larger picture for scientists and researchers.

"This would be a major boost for the space industry sector and would be able to be used for many different applications on the ground and use space-driven data to answer questions and solve problems," Boyce said.

"It will be providing an insight into changes in vegetation and freshwater and marine water quality and about bushfire fuel loads and issues around floods and the agricultural sector. There's a very long list of applications that can be used for it.

"Australia still relies on international partnerships to secure much of our Earth observation data. This information is critical to everything from weather prediction, bushfire monitoring and mining.”

While researchers are currently able to draw on larger observational satellites launched by larger players in the space industry, such as NASA's Landsat program or the European Commission's Sentinel-2 satellite, scientists monitoring changes in the Earth have been only able to analyze the one set of data.

Boyce said the Australian satellites could correlate the data from other satellites and provide additional information.

"[The current satellites] are looking at the world through different pairs of eyes and they see things in different ways," he said.

"That's all fine, but for scientists monitoring what's going on on Earth and the changes being put in place to the environment, what we're hoping to do is to provide the transfer matrix between one system and another and bring the data from multiple systems together.

"We'll be making a significant contribution.”

The feasibility study looked at the possibility of two satellites that will be launched every two years.

A cost for the satellite project is not yet known, but the study said it represented a major step forward for Australia's space industry.

The study also identified the opportunity to develop four new satellite subsystems currently not available to the market. It's hoped those subsystems could be exported elsewhere.

Manager of the Australian National Concurrent Design Facility, the organization at UNSW Canberra that conducted the study, Jan-Christian Meyer said Australia's satellite industry had potential to significantly expand.

"The Australian space industry at the moment is working in the world of satellites that are less than 20 kilograms," he said.

"The satellites we're looking at here are definitely a step up and in the 50- to 100-kilogram class.”

The feasibility study was conducted by UNSW for the Australian Space Agency, Geoscience Australia and the CSIRO.

The outcomes of the study are set to information the Australian Space Agency's Earth observation roadmap, which will be handed down later in the year.